In the recent case of Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court narrowly ruled the First Amendment protection for freedom of speech extends to organizations and corporations who wish to fund political advertisements. By way of disclaimer, I deeply disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision upon this controversial point, and by the conclusion of this essay I’m sure the attentive reader should be able to tease out my reasons for opposing the supposed (emphasis on “supposed”) expansion of First Amendment rights. Still, my main interest here concerns the occult implications of this decision, and especially how our culture views certain egregores, or group-empowered spirits.
First, let’s review how we arrived here. United States law has long regarded corporations as “persons” for purposes of whether someone can bring suit against a corporation. The limited liability corporation constitutes an entity distinct from its investors, complete with its own assets and liabilities. Consequently, individual shareholders cannot be individually held liable for the actions of the corporation. The United States government, along with most contemporary capitalist nations, allows this arrangement of convenience ultimately because it fosters economic growth. After all, investors are more likely to pour money into joint enterprises if their potential losses remain a known quantity.
Now here’s the rub: For the better part of our history, the personhood of the corporation has constituted a legal fiction — a convenient fiction, indeed, and yet fiction nonetheless. Corporations can and often do function as interested parties in tort actions, though otherwise their powers and limitations are quite different from those of living and breathing human beings. Corporations aren’t bound by the biological limitations and emotional ties which govern human choices. And generally speaking, individual human beings possess neither the financial resources nor the sheer wherewithal necessary to maintain nuclear power plants, or to distribute life-saving pharmaceuticals, or to manufacture the complex and deadly weapons of modern warfare. Human beings are people. Corporations play by an entirely different collection of rules. By this line of reasoning, the fact that corporations can be held liable for their actions, without thereby jeopardizing the assets of individual shareholders, constitutes the necessary – if deeply uneasy – compromise between the public good and the capitalist impulse. And yet. . .
By quite another line of reasoning, one widely supported across occult circles, corporations really are people. To understand why this is so, we must consider the nature of spirits and thoughtforms, and especially the class of thoughtforms known as egregores. In its simplest incarnation, an egregore constitutes a spirit supported by collective belief. Every mask which Deity wears, every goddess and god of antiquity and modernity, may be considered an egregore. Hecate Trevia is an egregore. Lilith of Eden is an egregore, as is Jesus of Nazareth. Still, egregores aren’t limited to traditional theological and mythological incarnations. Any idea, any collective entity around which people gather in belief, can adopt the mantle of egregore. Democracy is an egregore, as is Marxism. Santa Claus is an egregore. And tellingly, corporate entities — like Exxon-Mobil and McDonald’s — constitute egregores.
In his modern fantasy classic American Gods, author Neil Gaiman presents a world where the incarnate spirits of antiquity, beings like Woden and Ostara, find themselves besieged by the personified idols of modernity, things like Television and Media. In the surreal realm Gaiman creates, the various gods — both ancient and contemporary — really are people, with hopes and fears and dreams all their own. Still, setting aside those not-insignificant sects who believe in reincarnated savior or teacher figures, our “real world” religions generally adopt comparatively abstract — or at the very least more distant — conceptions of Deity. In any event, our “real world” typically doesn’t manifest things like energy conglomerates and restaurant franchises as flesh and blood human beings.
This restriction, however, doesn’t make the underlying spirits any less real, and it doesn’t make them any less influential. You may freely inquire of any parent steeped in the holiday traditions of the West whether the fact Santa Claus lacks material existence diminishes his influence over the Yuletide season, and find but few who would deny the power behind the idea of Santa Claus. And I can nearly guarantee you those few who ostensibly doubt the power of Santa Claus are much too busy with their Christmas shopping to give your inquiry a genuinely reflective answer!
An egregore who embodies human generosity and childlike wonder might not be such a bad thing, yet there exist other egregores — especially corporate spirits — whose agency is seldom bound by things like human morality and compassion. Absent government regulation, many — if not most — corporations would sacrifice both human health and our shared environment upon the bloodstained altar of Mammon. (For some deliciously dark humor along this vein, I refer the reader to the opening sequence of the 1999 movie Fight Club, wherein Edward Norton’s character explains to his fellow airline passenger how auto manufacturers decide whether to recall vehicles with known safety flaws: “Take the number of vehicles in the field ‘A’, multiply by the probable rate of failure ‘B’, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement ‘C’. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.” And for which auto manufacturer does he work? “A major one.”) To give these dangerous thoughtforms not only some voice, but indeed the capacity to drown out competing points of view upon the airwaves, seems at best reckless beyond all imagination.
I’m sure some readers will disagree with my admittedly negative portrayal of the corporate world. Well and good — We can agree to disagree, and moving forward we can debate such points as we please. Speaking for myself, I identify with Locke’s philosophy enough to regard freedom of speech as an essentially natural right, so barring immediate threats against human life — the proverbial “shouting fire” inside a crowded theatre — I’m loath to restrict free speech upon the basis of possible outcomes. If we hold with natural rights, then however we might choose to characterize the moral capacity of the corporation, we must nevertheless confront the a priori question of whether or not the corporation is “person” enough to merit First Amendment protections. If we should answer in the affirmative, logical consistency demands we extend freedom of speech to corporate egregores. If we should answer in the negative, intellectual honesty demands we give an account why.
Like “real people” made of flesh and blood, corporations exhibit an instinct for self-preservation. Likewise, corporations make choices and exhibit agency, often with greater range than any individual human being could practice. Unless we arbitrarily limit our definition of personhood to animate beings who display literal breath and pulse, then corporate egregores demonstrate relevant signs of personhood. Still, these signs are nothing more or less than other egregores and spirits possess. The mythological figures of antiquity, by inspiring their followers, everyday exert real changes across our shared cultural space. Such otherwise powerful godforms are partially bound from exerting too direct an influence upon the political course of the United States, insofar as the institutional mechanisms cannot rally behind individual candidates for office without thereby jeopardizing the tax-exempt status enjoyed by churches. And there exist other egregores who are much too “unofficial” — and often too far removed from the notion of money — to really flood the airwaves with their unique messages.
I should point out there are numerous lobbyist groups which also function as egregores, for whom money becomes merely the means towards an end. Groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association focus upon public policy, rather than profit margins, and consequently — ironically — their coffers generally can’t compete with the largest among the corporate interests. (Notably, given the substance of the case at hand, the Supreme Court could have restricted the scope of Citizens United decision to non-profit groups only. Inexplicably, the Court opted for the broader interpretation.) These non-profit groups, as well, may now spend as they please to help or harm individual campaigns, as they see fit, because — according to the Court’s decision — these organizations enjoy the same First Amendment protections which other “people” enjoy.
Did you catch that? Corporations are now people. Egregores — or at least those egregores with institutional avatars registered with the Internal Revenue Service — are now people. Now I consider myself an ardent supporter of First Amendment rights. And I’m an occultist who maintains regular discourse with certain denizens of the astral realms, which only makes sense when I acknowledge such spirits as persons. Why am I less than thrilled?
Earlier I observed if corporations are people, then logical consistency demands we extend First Amendment protections to such beings. And it’s true the First Amendment merely guarantees freedom of speech, and not particular platforms or podiums from which we might wish to speak. Herein the problem follows: Exceptionally deep coffers make for exceptionally high podiums. More to the point, they make for exceptionally loud megaphones. I’ve remarked before that the free marketplace of ideas allows truth to bubble up and falsity to sink under its own weight. I stand by this fundamental assertion, yet all around our little planet money buys airtime, and lots of money buys lots of airtime. We may question — and I do — whether a world in which corporate interests can and mostly likely will run wall-to-wall political advertisements constitutes a free marketplace of ideas. Natural rights come with the important caveat the rights of one being end where the rights of another begin. The First Amendment is no different. I genuinely fear by unleashing the loudest megaphones, we are thereby silencing both flesh and blood human beings and the egregores who don’t serve Mammon. A plutocracy which pays mere lip service unto the free marketplace of ideas isn’t really free at all.
Looking back, I’m not entirely sure my article has maintained the political neutrality for which I had hoped. And yet mayhap as an example, my reasoning herein might inspire others to measure their own cultural views by the standard of their chosen paths. Our magical paradigms — reflectively held — must continue to apply when we leave the unseen realms. And sometimes, as with the Citizens United decision, those unseen realms come crashing into our material existence. Are spirits people? Are egregores? If we answer yes, then what rights and duties might such spirits thereby inherit? I’ve expressed my feelings upon the subject; your mileage may vary. I would challenge you, my dear readers, to reflect upon how your magical paradigms shape your cultural perspectives. By introspection we grow as Magicians and as people — whether flesh and blood or otherwise.
©2010 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
To begin, I must offer an unqualified spoiler alert. During the course of this article, I’ll be examining the complex and fascinating intersection between tribalism and mysticism, employing for reference points James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar, and the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. If you’ve missed either of these movies, please remedy this deficiency immediately, for cultural literacy’s sake if nothing else. I’ll endeavor to make this article accessible for everyone, including those who have missed one or both movies, so by the same token, don’t blame me when I ruin the movie for you. You have been warned. Additionally, I should make clear from the outset my intention isn’t to judge whether these movies are “good” — or even entertaining — in any traditional sense. I shall leave proper film criticism to those more educated in the nuances of the medium, or at least those with a somewhat more interesting point of view than my own. I’m much more interested in teasing out the lessons we might derive from science fiction about our own role as scholars and practitioners of the occult.
Regarding the inspiration for this article, I must thank the editor for her recent post regarding the movie Avatar. I had the pleasure of watching James Cameron’s beautifully rendered epic with several friends the weekend before Yule. If you haven’t seen this movie — Yes, the computer animation and the special effects are nothing short of amazing. Yes, the overall story arc proves exceptionally clichéd in places. I’ll stop short of calling it colonialist fetish porn, although other reviewers have leveled exactly this charge. (More of this anon.) Still, Avatar raises some meaningful questions about what being mystical means in relation with the rest of society.
In broad outline, the story arc of Avatar closely resembles that of the science fiction classic Dune. In Avatar, soldier-turned-mercenary Jake Sully finds himself on Pandora, an alien world largely inimical to human life; there the forces of human civilization are busily mining unobtanium, a rare mineral which is fantastically valuable back on Earth. Compare this premise with that of Frank Herbert’s Dune, wherein the young noble Paul Atreides moves to the desert planet Arrakis; Arrakis is a desolate and hostile world notable for being the only source of the spice melange, a mind-altering substance critical for interstellar travel and thus the continuance of civilization. Pandora is populated by the Na’vi, a supposedly primitive people who we learn are actually very much in touch with the rhythms of their world. Upon Dune, we have the Fremen, a deeply spiritual people whose survival skills are nearly as strong as their tenacious belief in prophecy and fate. Jake Sully finds himself among the Na’vi, and he learns not only the skills necessary to thrive within Pandora’s lush biosphere, but also an appreciation for the interconnected web of life upon Pandora. Paul Atreides, cast into the unforgiving wilderness during a coup by a rival noble house, becomes part of Fremen culture and learns the ways of desert survival. Both figures are eventually accepted by their respective adopted cultures. (Interestingly, in each case the protagonist must ride some dangerous beast in order to be recognized fully as an adult!) When human mercenaries arrive to drive off the Na’vi, Jake Sully successfully unites the various tribes of the Na’vi in a heroic campaign against the technologically superior humans. Paul Atreides, taking up the heavy mantle of messiah-figure, becomes leader of the scattered communities of Fremen in order to lay low the rival houses which conspired to bring down his family.
The patterns here mirror each other to no small degree. For our purposes, though, I should like to focus our attention upon the two spiritual cultures at work here — the Na’vi and the Fremen. Looking through critical eyes, we may find a surprisingly jarring contrast. While both peoples are undoubtedly spiritual, and — crucially here — connected with the rhythms of their respective worlds, the real-world analogues are very, very different. In the sky-hued and iridescent countenance of the Na’vi, we see reflected the shamans of Africa, South America, the Pacific Rim. In the wind-scoured and burning gaze of the Fremen, we observe nothing so much as the Islamic militant. By the artist’s design, we find ourselves inspired by the serene pantheism of the Na’vi. Conversely, we most often shudder when confronted with the naked, apocalyptic fanaticism of the Fremen. Whether these portrayals are even-handed or accurate, we will leave for another day. What matters here is this: Both the Na’vi and the Fremen are spiritual cultures which exist largely outside of the broader universes they inhabit.
This quality of apartness echoes the notes sounded by two authors here on Rending the Veil. In the Yule issue, Patrick Dunn observes that in the practice of magic there exists an element of separation, which “amounts to a cutting off not just of society but of the physical world.” (More on the second author — the insightful Ian Vincent — momentarily.) Dunn characterizes this process as “a turning inward” into the world of ideas. This inward focus is crucially important both for the Na’vi and for the Fremen, because both cultures are really defined by their inherent inwardness. When confronted with outsiders, both cultures act with some mixture of caution and hostility, attenuated for the specific encounter. When confronted by the beliefs and practices of outsiders, both the Na’vi and the Fremen instinctively close ranks and look inward, towards their own respective teachings.
In an article appearing in the March 1992 issue of Atlantic Monthly, noted political theorist Benjamin Barber described a cultural conflict he termed “Jihad versus McWorld” — in short, the conflict between the forces of tribalism and the forces of universalism. Jihad — speaking strictly in the context of Barber’s article — is the tendency to identify narrowly with one’s cultural, ethnic, or religious community. Jihad, in its extreme manifestation, is parochial tribalism taken to an extreme, coupled with suspicion or even outright hostility towards other cultural identities, whether tribal or universal. Jihad seeks to cut off the broader world, sequestering itself to prevent contamination by the external world. McWorld, on the other hand, is the homogenizing impulse which suggests all people are essentially equal, together with an essential disdain for the unique aspects of local and tribal identities. The universalizing paradigm of McWorld — at its worst — suggests all people are consumers within a world driven by culturally neutral economic forces.
Neither paradigm possesses an exclusive claim upon the moral high ground. While Benjamin Barber’s characterization of Jihad speaks of parochialism and even xenophobia, the impulse towards tribalism also preserves myths, traditions, and cultural artifacts, elements which resonate with older elements of our cultural and biological makeup. Left unchecked, McWorld reduces everyone to consumer trends and dollar signs. Still, the notion we all share an essentially universal identity as people grounds — morally and politically — the notion of universal human rights. We should also take note these two tendencies — the one narrowing our identity, the other broadening it — exist inside every single individual and across every single culture. Because these tendencies — considered philosophically — prove more ambiguous morally than Barber’s political focus, I will employ the terms “tribalism” and “universalism” throughout the rest of this article.
The respective worldviews of the Na’vi and the Fremen are strongly tribal in tone. Both cultures demonstrate elements of siege mentality, more or less justifiably, given the deleterious outcomes of each people’s interactions with the broader universe around them. The Na’vi find their very survival threatened by the arrival of humans, especially when the corporate authorities leading the occupation decides a Na’vi community must move to make way for the company’s mining operations. The Na’vi, however, perceive a broader threat to their way of life. Their fear finds expression in their ambiguous response to the school opened by Dr. Grace Augustine. According to the movie’s backstory, the Na’vi close the school because of its association with the occupation force; still, the tribe demonstrates an obvious and mutually held respect for Dr. Augustine.
Coupled with this tribalism we find a strong spiritual element. The Na’vi demonstrate a profound appreciation for the interconnected web of life around them, which translates into an essentially pantheistic worldview. The Fremen, on the other hand, embrace both fatalistic reverence for the wilderness and zealous devotion to prophecy. The broader universe crafted by Frank Herbert does include other religious expressions, notably the influential sisterhood of witches called the Bene Gesserit; still, the Bene Gesserit are only one player within a much larger complex of institutions. However important they may be for the story of Paul Atreides, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood cannot shape the worldview of the Galactic Empire to the degree the spiritual voices of the Fremen single-handedly define the culture of Arrakis. Indeed, tribalism and religion generally support one another. Spiritual traditions become an identity around which a tribe can find both root and shelter, and the resulting tribe then protects and perpetuates the dogma of the religion.
It’s not surprising that the universal tendency cannot so easily sustain this level of religious fervor. (Quite ironically, Western forms of mysticism — properly understood — exhibit an ineffable quality which precludes, and indeed transcends, the particular; sadly, this impulse seldom permits any real alliance between the broader universal impulse and the community of believers. Oh, and allow me to belatedly wish everyone here “Happy Holidays!” — See what I mean? ) Spiritual pursuits — including mysticism and magic — most often prove intensely idiosyncratic and deeply personal, and what is idiosyncratic and personal forever remains the enemy of homogenous community. The beings and phenomena of the astral realms — however the believer conceives them — become so many impersonal forces of nature of psychology, when cast beneath the relentlessly materialistic gaze of universalism. Tribalism, on the other hand, celebrates the personal myths and traditions which resonate with our primal selves most profoundly. Whether right or wrong, the tribal believer encounters Deity and the spirit world in ways more intuitive — more relevant — than the universal impulse allows.
The charge has been leveled that the story of Avatar amounts to cultural chauvinism, since the story shows an outsider who “out-natives” the natives, surpassing the wildest expectations of the tribal culture, in order to bring the disparate tribes together against their common foe. The damaging subtext, according to this deconstruction, belittles native culture by suggesting the natives could not themselves engage in such daring and heroic efforts in their own defense. We might well make the same inquiry of Dune, an endeavor further complicated by the fact the Fremen are notably guided by the prophecies of Dr. Kynes, another outsider who identifies with — and becomes part of — the religious conversation of the Fremen.
Before we can consider this train of thought, we must return briefly to “Jihad versus McWorld”. Barber himself suggests — in no uncertain terms — that McWorld is heavily favored within the broader culture wars. McWorld has the distinct advantage of looking past every possible division between diverse peoples as something essentially superficial. People are people are people, and when people who would otherwise belong to distinct cultural groups share this belief, then the universal tendency can bring to bear the full weight of the community during its battles with tribalism. A movement which embraces tribal thinking, on the other hand, devalues not only the broad, universal impulse which would homogenize the world, but also the surrounding tribal movements which fail to correspond with that movement’s identity or worldview. McWorld doesn’t need to divide and conquer; Jihad conveniently divides itself.
Herein we observe what I believe is the real reason why basically tribal peoples unite under someone like Jake Sully or Paul Atreides in the stories of science fiction. Their allegiance has little to do with the outsider’s physical or mental prowess, though both individuals are certainly remarkable and talented individuals. Neither the Na’vi nor the Fremen can be considered guilty of any misplaced reverence for the technological superiority of the outside cultures. No, the real strength of both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides lies in their cultural background. Both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides come from cultures which celebrate coming together for some common cause, and both are charismatic enough to communicate the benefits of intertribal cooperation to otherwise disparate tribes. The universal impulse which they champion isn’t superior morally to the tribal mindset. Jake Sully goes to war with the culturally arrogant and environmentally reckless corporate outfit he abandons, yet here we observe nothing so much as moral self-correction emerging from within the homogenizing force of McWorld. While Avatar shows clearly defined lines of good and evil, with Jake Sully representing the “good” aspects of universalism, and the corporation representing the “worse” elements, Dune adopts a more nuanced approach. Paul Atreides is clearly the embodiment of universal impulse among the Fremen, yet Paul frequently works from motives of vengeance and wrath, and his overall character remains morally ambiguous at best.
The defining element here isn’t the “advanced” culture’s psychological or moral superiority — Jake Sully and Paul Atreides are both uniquely talented individuals, yet this fact alone does not enable them to rally the disparate tribes and communities under one banner. No, the real conflict here is between the universal impulse and the tribal impulse, and here both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides claim their decisive advantage, since they emerge from universal cultures. (Of course, pragmatic advantage does not equate with moral worth, yet this is another discussion for another day.) In both science fiction stories, tribal peoples must adopt a more life-affirming version of the universalizing impulse which empowers their enemies, and Jake and Paul give them the tools to effect precisely this change.
What’s the takeaway for us as witches and magicians? Generally speaking, we are not the Na’vi, and we are not the Fremen. In the battle for the collective soul of our world, we are born into the universal impulse which suffuses the whole of Western culture. Every time we endorse universal human rights — every single time we look past someone’s skin color or sexual orientation — we affirm the universal impulse. Every single time we suggest in matters of religion there are many roads ascending the same mountain, we affirm the universal impulse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are life-affirming elements within universalism; any time we can tease those out, we add something important towards the health and sanity of our world. Our culture celebrates the universal impulse. We perceive in Jake Sully and in Paul Atreides noble protagonists who speak towards the most life-affirming incarnations of this mindset.
The practice of magic constitutes the crafting of paradigms. The doctrines of chaos magic make this aspect explicit, yet most introspective forms of contemporary magic embrace this notion to one degree or another. Even if the paradigm in question is nothing more than simple acceptance of some spirit world, the magician embraces a worldview apart from the cultural default of scientific materialism. And herein we see the “otherness” of the magician. Earlier within this article, I referenced Patrick Dunn’s treatment of the magician as something apart from the rest of the world. This impulse is tribal in tone. Equally tribal in aspect is the turning inward of the magician. I ran with the notion of inwardness as something defining about tribal societies, yet what this treatment misses (and what I believe Dunn catches) is this: The turning inward practiced by the magician is personal introspection; the magician remains ever the tribe of one. Choices about magical paradigm are made by the individual magician.
This idiosyncratic practice, this personal interpretation of our shared world, runs counter to the overall thrust of the universal impulse. And herein we discover the fundamental tension for those who practice magic within the Western tradition. We are children of the universal impulse which defines our shared culture, and yet we rail against (or subtly subvert) the homogenizing aspects of this same force. We are, to borrow an expression from Ian Vincent’s article in the Samhain issue of Rending the Veil, the “Tribe of the Strange.” We are those who step out of line, who dance with the unique beats of our own hearts. And it’s damnably difficult to step outside what the mainstream considers normal, without feeling a profound tension with this homogenizing force.
Friedrich Nietzsche, with his characteristic wryness, once proposed this tension conspires to prevent the emergence of genuinely great souls across humanity. The common people, bound together by simple and mutually held conceptual ground, are able to communicate with one another easily, facilitating their collective survival efforts. The great mind, upon the other hand, not only thinks “outside the box” of common thought, but also along unique lines distinct from other great minds. Unable to communicate either with the common people or with one another, they struggle in isolation to survive and reproduce. Now we might take issue with the notion that greatness contains some genetic component — Again witness the universal impulse at work! — and in fairness to Nietzsche, I think there’s some tongue in cheek which a surface reading of his work too frequently misses. Still, our own endeavor to preserve our individual uniqueness becomes doubly difficult, since nearly the whole of Western civilization remains indelibly universal in character. We are not the Na’vi, and we are not the Fremen. Simply phrased, we are not an inherently tribal people.
Nevertheless, the line separating the universal impulse and the tribal impulse, much like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous line between good and evil, passes through every human heart. We might favor one mindset or another — we might be born into one world or another — yet the opposing viewpoint remains within us, always there in potential. This latent potential is what gives Jake Sully the capacity to understand, however imperfectly, the pantheistic and animistic worldview of the Na’vi. Likewise, the nascent tribal impulse within Paul Atreides makes possible his tempestuous and fateful connection with the devout Fremen.
As the inheritors of Western culture, we are universal within our thinking. People are people are people, and there are many roads ascending the same mountain. This universal tendency is what inspires virtual homes like Rending the Veil, wherein we find many authors and readers, with many distinct viewpoints, coming together with the common cause of learning from one another. As witches and magicians, as members of the Tribe of the Strange, though, we are tribal within our thinking. We nurture and develop paradigms which oppose or subvert the homogenizing and materialistic tendencies of universalism. And while we may find meaningful spiritual traditions and covens which share broad elements of our individual magical paradigms, our paradigms remain forever individual and unique, for the paths of the mystic and the magician remain forever inward ones. The challenge here becomes one of balance and integration. Taken to their respective extremes, tribalism devalues everyone and everything outside the narrow definition of the tribe, while universalism devalues everything which renders the individual unique and special. How can we champion the life-affirming elements contained in these two impulses, without falling prey to those perilous extremes?
The complete answer — should there be such — rests outside the scope of my article. I can only propose what might be the path towards an answer, since the real solution occurs within genuine introspection and open-minded dialogue. We are the Tribe of the Strange, and we must learn how to embrace both our strangeness and our latent tribal impulse. By our strangeness, I mean those unique paradigms and practices which make us witches and magicians. Our strangeness transcends any particular affiliation; by the very nature of our craft, our personal introspection transcends even spiritual tradition or coven. Still, this strangeness makes all the more urgent our collective efforts to communicate with one another as one singular tribe. We might not — cannot, really — agree upon every issue, and we must be okay with such differences. We must develop a common dialogue, however, should we wish to resist as one tribe the homogenizing elements of universalism which would deny our spiritual birthright. And we develop this common dialogue via the universal impulse which we inherit from our broader culture, just like Jake Sully, and just like Paul Atreides. Science fiction teaches us how to tease out the life-affirming aspects within our cultural makeup, without falling prey to xenophobia or to homogenization. Let’s continue the dialogue of our strange little tribe, here and elsewhere, embracing both our own unique greatness and mutual respect for one another.
©2010 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
As human beings, we necessarily craft metaphysical paradigms which explain our perceptions and direct our actions. Whether we believe in Providence or in Lady Fortune determines whether we acknowledge some propitious turn of events as divine blessing or else merely good luck. Whether we believe in the inherent dignity of human life crucially affects how we approach questions of personal and societal ethics, as does the manner in which we interpret ambiguous terms like “dignity” and “human life.” Inextricably embedded within every bare perception lies the question of interpretation, and our interpretations have for their bedrock our philosophical and magical paradigms.
Oftentimes, human beings simultaneously harbor two or more paradigms which — considered reflectively — prove mutually repugnant. This confused state of affairs can preserve human life and society, as the extreme conclusions of any one paradigm are tempered by rival belief systems, yet such ideological inconsistency can also inflict significant levels of cognitive dissonance and psychological stress upon those who straddle opposing viewpoints over prolonged durations. The Chaos Magicians within our midst might well regard the ability to dance across multiple paradigms as virtue rather than liability, at least when the pragmatic incorporation of any and all viewpoints occurs consciously and reflectively.
Speaking for myself, I am not so sanguine about the postmodern approach which Chaos Magic takes towards reality — I believe against all odds there is an intelligible cosmos which admits human apprehension! — although I think there are lessons to be learned from an introspective consideration of the paradigm or paradigms to which one holds. In this essay, I wish to examine some common interpretations of that most ubiquitous of paranormal phenomena, the ghostly haunting, and specifically what these explanations suggest about the underlying magical paradigms. My aim here does not encompass the proving or disproving of any particular phenomena. I will not explain what ghosts are, or how such ephemeral beings might interact with the realms of the quick, at least in any definitive or authoritative sense. Rather, I wish to think about how we think about ghosts, and then examine what these thought processes say about us. (To any Zen Buddhists out there, you may fairly assume I am traveling in the opposite direction; in fairness, I am doing so reflectively, and since space-time is essentially curved we might safely assume given enough time we shall meet upon the other side.)
The original impetus for this essay began with idle musings around Samhain, when the Mists which apparently divide the material and the astral grow especially thin. While reflecting upon the nature of ghosts, I found myself face to face with a logical conundrum. There are basically two schools of thought concerning the origin of an active, apparently self-aware haunting. The simplest interpretation, by and by, says the haunting wherein the ghost interacts both with environmental changes and with living people represents the human soul of the deceased, still present in some meaningful sense within our pre-afterlife world. When people die, goes this theory, some people get “stuck” — most frequently due to exceptional life circumstances — and cannot move beyond their earthly existence. (Strictly speaking, this explanation does not require belief in some specific afterlife, or even belief in any afterlife, although one seldom holds the belief in ghosts without some concurrent belief in the afterlife.)
There exists a competing explanation for the existence and nature of ghosts, one fairly well documented in the contemporary occult community. By this reasoning, a ghost isn’t the same being as the deceased individual; rather, the deceased leaves behind a mental and emotional imprint which a sympathetic nonhuman spirit then animates. I presume we’re all familiar with this phenomenon on smaller scales; if you’ve ever walked into a room and felt some inexplicable “vibe” — whether good or bad — then you’re at least familiar with the sort of psychic residue I’m describing. Spirits tend to manifest where this psychic imprint aligns with their own natures and aims. When the deceased leaves behind some especially potent psychic imprint, or when such an imprint is fueled by the emotional charge of those who mourn the loss, then the Mists grow very thin indeed for those spirits in tune with the mental and emotional state of the deceased. The result? A “ghost” which manifests through the psychic imprint surrounding certain deaths.
This latter theory accords better with my personal sense of things, and especially my belief in reincarnation. (I should also add my definition of sympathetic spirits does not generally include what certain strands of Judeo-Christian thought would regard as demons. While I remain skeptical the ghostly presence watching over little Sally really is Grandpa, I’m reasonably certain the manifestation in question isn’t some machination of Satan. That’s not to say there aren’t dangerous ghosts out there. There are dangerous people across the world, and dangerous people leave behind dangerous imprints, which dangerous spirits then inhabit. Nevertheless, I stand by my conviction most spirits are like most people — basically good at heart, sometimes selfish, essentially looking for love.)
This belief in the “ghost” as spirit-animated imprint points towards the thorny problem of personal identity. If the nonhuman spirit animating the psychic imprint does so self-consciously, then there is little issue here; at this point, the “ghost” becomes the Trickster — epitomized by The Magician within the Tarot — although mayhap one who operates with benevolent ends in mind. Some variations of this theory take one additional step, suggesting the animating spirit may inhabit the psychic imprint so completely the spirit forgets its own identity as an independent being.
Now the issue of personal identity begins to take shape. I inquire of myself, as student of the occult: Who am I? Everyday I wear masks, glamers which I adopt and discard as my circumstances require. Here I am child, and there I am lover. Here I am teacher, and there I am student. These masks develop and evolve as I develop and evolve, although we might push too far, were we to identify me as the mere sum of such mutable projections. I am process, perhaps — a ripple of interconnected events and perceptions fanning out across space-time. And yet what are these events? My intellectual processes? My emotional responses? These are certainly the ephemeral things which leave my mark upon the psychic fabric of the universe, and were some spirit to inhabit my energy signature, the workings of my mind and my heart would be the medium through which such manifestations might happen. The warmth I bring to this room, wherein I gathered many times with family and friends — this emotional energy proves the gateway for spirits of warmth and benevolence. The wrath I displayed in another place — such anguish and terror becomes the gateway for much more malevolent spirits. The kindnesses and cruelties we bring into the physical world inevitably set the stage for the spirits who might follow afterward.
If the nonhuman spirits animating such energetic signatures merely echoed the ambient emotions, then we might have little cause to worry about personal identity; we constantly return the smiles and the scowls of those around us, all without losing any meaningful sense of who we ourselves are. Meaningful empathy towards, and interaction with, those around us normally doesn’t compromise our sense of personal identity, and we have no reason to believe spirits should materially differ from us in this regard. And yet ghosts do more than merely resonate with the ambient psychic energy; they actively mimic certain mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the living. The question then arises: How deep does the psychic imprint run, and how much could the animating spirit really lose itself within the impression?
If some living human being lost all memory of her own identity, and moreover fully believed herself to be some other individual, we would consider her at the very least deeply delusional. If I develop amnesia, and then believe myself to be Bill Clinton, I would be regarded as lunatic, and mayhap rightfully so. The mere belief — even when passionately held — that I am someone else does not make this belief true in any meaningful sense. And yet what if the psychic imprint which the spirit accesses runs deeper? If I had all the memories, together with the intellectual and emotional responses of Bill Clinton down into the most minute of details, then might I in some meaningful sense be the former United States president? Returning to my own (non-presidential) identity, if my own memories and psychic processes could be uploaded into some simulacrum, would this simulacrum then be me? These are the questions of science fiction, of course, although actual hauntings challenge us philosophically precisely because they represent the possibility of such transference. If the imprint runs deep enough, and if we are equal to our mental and emotional activity, then how can we genuinely separate the nonhuman spirit from the deceased individual? The very hypothesis may fall to its own definitional vagaries.
There is one possible solution, although this approach suffers from its own difficulties. We might choose to define ourselves as something apart from the things which leave our mark upon the psychic backdrop. Mayhap we are something other than our mental and emotional activity. Together with the mind and the heart, we are flesh and we are soul. These latter two constitute our own animating force, the means and the will by which we translate the desires of mind and heart into action. For ghosts, the normal definition of flesh in inapplicable, although such beings generally possess the ability to impose at least limited alterations upon their environments, whether through fluctuations in temperature and electromagnetic fields, or through full-blown telekinetic or ectoplasmic phenomena.
Very few people who believe in ghosts would suggest personal identity remains strictly tied with the physical corpus, since ghosts by their very existence challenge this notion, and yet methinks we hold very solid philosophical grounds to challenge an enduring connection between personal identity and the physical manifestation, since this physical manifestation is liable to constant flux, constantly absorbing and expelling elements without any actual destruction of the underlying identity. We might say the same thing of the mind and the heart, and yet there exists this at least intuitive difference: While the complete transference of the mind and heart into another vessel might stretch our sense of personal identity, we would intuitively recognize the simulacrum receiving the psychic imprint as the original individual, whereas changes to the mind and heart strike into the very core of who we are.
There remains under consideration the personal spark of will, sometimes termed the soul. I remain uncertain whether we can meaningfully separate the will from the remaining aspects of human identity, yet making the endeavor in the abstract, we discover something very much like the physical corpus — an animating force which translates mental and emotional desires into meaningful action across our shared world. We constantly “breathe” the ambient psychic energy; much like the flesh, we observe elements enter into the will, and we observe other elements depart. I am reluctant to give some primacy to our mental and emotional aspects, and yet these seem to define us in ways more enduring than the constant flux of energies which mark the flesh and soul. And again, if the psychic imprint runs deep enough — if this imprint contains something enduring about ourselves, then does our identity change with the animating force? And if we answer this question in the negative, then does our hypothesis merely confirm the ghost is — in some meaningful sense — one and the same with the deceased?
Within this especial moment, I cannot answer these questions. I most certainly cannot unlock such conundrums for you, my dearest readers who have patiently endured unto the end. You may harbor a magical paradigm in which such questions are meaningless. Or the nature of ghosts may raise different questions within your own unique paradigm. I hope my personal reflections here encourage you to reflect upon your beliefs and your paradigms, in order to tease out what naturally follows from the assumptions you might make about your world. As always, I welcome your thoughts upon this most mysterious of subjects.
©2009 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
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
The study of magic is, by and large, the study of paradigms. The Witch — by whatever title she or he may adopt — steps beyond the default worldview presupposed by the surrounding society, and instead cultivates a unique paradigm which resonates with her or his deepest intuitions. This line of inquiry constitutes an ever present challenge for the practicing Witch. Our sisters and brothers who practice Chaos Magic may well find this interpretation of magic resonates with their approaches. For the Chaos Magician, paradigms are tools which the enlightened soul can adopt and abandon at will. Dancing from one worldview into the next, ever light of step, the Chaos Magician draws from some particular paradigm what she or he requires before moving on. Key to this approach is the conviction that all paradigms are merely artificial constructs by which we organize and render intelligible an essentially ineffable cosmos, yet herein we discover the key dilemma of Chaos Magic: If all paradigms are ultimately expendable, then where can we hope to ground the very conviction all paradigms are expendable interpretations? Thus presented, the argument becomes paradoxical, which may prove no obstacle for the practicing Chaos Magician — or for the Mystic, should we care to explore beyond the boundaries of the purely rational.
Still, the rationalist inside me, who has yet to surrender all hope for an intelligible universe, questions whether Chaos Magic simply sets up one meta-paradigm that encompasses all other possible paradigms. My concern here is simple: If the meta-paradigm thus proposed resolves into an essentially existentialist position, and I fear Chaos Magic indeed reverts back into existentialism, then how do we overcome or sidestep — or even incorporate — existential angst into our magical paradigms?
Allow me one step back. For those less versed in postmodern philosophy, existentialism proposes that existence precedes essence. That is, there is the world, eternally cold and mechanical in its manifold operations. These operations are pure existence, subsisting without reference to meaning or essence. Essence is what we add, the significance which conscious thought projects into the mechanical process. This essence can be thoroughly uplifting and optimistic — witness Soren Kirkegaard’s essentially Christian answer to the existentialist question! — yet whenever one takes up the mantle of existentialism, there lurks the spectre of nihilism. If all the universe is cold, mechanical process, devoid of any meaning apart from what we decide, then there can be no intrinsic meaning subsisting within anything. The universe simply grinds along, oblivious towards even the possibility of some deeper meaning. This scenario, as presented by existentialist philosophers like Sartre and Camus, becomes the source of existential angst, the pervasive and disquieting suspicion that any significance or teleology to things remains, at bottom, false.
It may remain possible that the Chaos Magician can refer all lesser paradigms back towards one primary reality which has meaning, transcending the merely mechanical. Certainly the irrepressible ebullience of Discordian thought suggests the possibility of one such meta-paradigm. Still, the question of whether reality is truly devoid of meaning — apart from what we add — remains.
This question turns especially vexing if we regard magic as something essential — that is, an essence — as opposed to something purely mechanical. If magic consists of the meaning we add into otherwise purely mechanical motions, then magic seemingly has no truck with reality at its most really real. (I recognize that if you do not perceive magic as the art of paradigm bending, I may have long since lost your attention, and if you regard magic as straightforwardly mechanical process, then existential angst constitutes no threat towards your magical paradigm. For those few readers as crazy as me, or for the morbidly curious, I shall continue this line of inquiry just a little further.)
While I am not deeply opposed to the existentialist project, I do regard their central proposition as essentially misleading. To assume that existence precedes essence means to assume an unobservable existence, for all observation imparts some meaning or essence, however slight and however poorly articulated. We simply cannot observe without becoming drawn into the connection between observer and observed. We are inexplicably entangled with the things we observe, and from this entanglement we derive the essence of the observed. Indeed, we might just as well say this entanglement — the way we think and feel about the observed — actually constitutes the essence in question. And there can be no unobserved existence.
Let me reiterate this point: There can be no unobserved existence. To say an existence is unobserved constitutes a manifest contradiction, since the supposition of the existence in question is itself an observation. Moreover, everything exists precisely by the virtue of being observed, by itself in the barest sense if nothing else. (For those familiar with my metaphysical views, my pantheism does allow for other forms and degrees of perception, but these I shall pass over presently in the interests of constructing the simplest argument possible.) Within everything there is essence, both the essence from self-perception and the essence from an outside observer. Existence and essence are forever and inescapably entwined, just as every being has both material and spiritual aspects. (Indeed, existence and essence are respectively much the same things!)
If spiritual essence always and everywhere coexists with perceived existence, then our next set of questions must revolve around what kind of essence we will or should intermingle with matter. Essence, consisting of a qualitative connection between observer and observed, depends in large part upon the choices we make when interpreting our world. Kirkegaard makes this very point in Works of Love when he suggests we are forever confronted with the choice between belief and mistrust. Love, argues Kirkegaard, is unique among the virtues in this: Love can only thrive within us when we believe in — indeed, unconditionally presuppose — the presence of love within others, from the first moment clear unto the last. Forever the mistrust endemic to nihilism raises the terrible possibility that there is no love within others, and whenever we choose this mistrust, we remove from ourselves the very possibility of finding love. Believe, and we find love, perhaps within others, yet more crucially — more gracefully — within ourselves. The tension between these two possibilities, between which we are eternally poised, lies at the root of existential angst.
Something of this same dilemma confronts the practicing Witch, I should think, for the quality of being magical, much like the quality of being loving, turns precisely upon finding without that which we seek within. To be magical means finding the magic inside those things around us, discovering the connections of meaning and correspondence which empower our spells. I’m not unaware that this position seemingly inverts the traditional formulation of the “Charge of the Goddess” — though in seeming only! Near the end of the Charge, the Goddess observes, “If that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” These are powerful words, words which counsel the Witch to look inward for genuine power and wisdom. To suggest we should seek the magical in the world around us, should we hope to discover the magic within, seems at odds with this Wiccan saying. Still, the choice to discover the magical inside things is itself a choice which dwells within the Witch, the same choice between belief and mistrust which Kirkegaard proposed nearly two hundred years ago. Magic is an essence, and essence depends upon the relationship between observer and observed that we ourselves choose. “Seek and ye shall find,” says the Christian. “As above, so below,” answers the occultist. And so our world takes shape. Seek love, and you will find love within. Seek magic, and magic you will surely possess. Seek the coldly mechanical universe, of course, and this you’ll find, as well.
Kirkegaard suggests we have no more reason to doubt the goodness within the world than we have to believe in things life-affirming, and I see no reason to doubt this essentially hopeful position. Indeed, the Chaos Magician can happily accept this argument, and then skip between the two positions as she or he desires, perhaps a little more mindfully than most everyone else who blend belief and mistrust in daily life. Still, this paradigm bending fails to escape the spectre of angst that existentialism suggests, and while I’m hesitant to jettison this pervasive sense of angst entirely, I am eager to arrive at workable terms with this metaphysical uneasiness. My solution returns to the central issue of ontological primacy. Simply stated, does existence precede essence? As an idealist, I simply don’t grant matter any existence independent of our ideas of matter. (Taking a page from George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.”) Furthermore, I believe every perception includes some qualification, some interpretation — in sum, some essence. Therefore, I cannot grant that existence precedes essence in any meaningful sense. This break from existentialism, however, becomes perhaps the greatest boon for the Witch, because every last sensible thing thus becomes pregnant with the possibility of magic. With every interaction, indeed with every bare perception, there arises the question of essence, whether this especial thing is something magical. And to this question, we Witches can answer with a resounding YES!
The nihilist will suggest we are simply fooling ourselves, choosing to make meaningless qualifications of an impersonal and mechanical universe. They will argue the underlying angst of existentialism points towards the one great truth, that everyone ultimately suffers alone within the cold void of reality. I don’t suggest we should remove all doubt about the nature of things, for such not only blinds us against genuine interaction with the world, but also removes the very emotional urgency which gives our Craft its power. In truth, the nihilist perceives reality through filters just as obscuring as those adopted by their magical brethren; the nihilist cannot cheat around our fundamental inability to grasp directly the ineffable nature of reality. All reality — everything that is — constantly forces us to choose between belief and mistrust, between the magical and the mundane, and this choice speaks most of all towards what we seek within ourselves. I choose to walk with belief, to walk with the magic around and within me. Such is the choice — and the power — of the Witch. And so with this choice I leave you, my dear readers.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all!
—”Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
Warm and cool, dry and moist, light and shadow — As human beings, our conceptual frameworks freely draw upon dualistic oppositions. Because we who practice magic are human, our magical paradigms partake of these conceptual divides, though as Magicians we have an intellectual responsibility to question whether our basic assumptions about the world are beneficial, or even warranted, for our magical development. When we find ideas which are useful for our occult endeavors, then cultivating our understanding of these ideas should facilitate their adaptation and application. On the other hand, when our paradigms constrain our capacity to engage our world constructively, we should make the intellectual effort to modify — or even to jettison — the offending assumptions.
From the above examples, we can readily see the influence of dualism and binary reasoning both upon ancient proto-science and within contemporary occult theory. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, when sketching out the fourfold division of the elements so integral to our contemporary magical thought, assigned to each element a primal quality based upon temperature and another based upon moisture, so that Fire was hot and dry, while Water was cold and wet. These pairs of essential qualities proposed by Empedocles — warm and cool, dry and moist — subsist upon binary thinking; without the assumption of either-or, they largely fail to “click” upon an intuitive level. An object may partake of some quality “Alpha” only insofar as the object does not partake of the opposing quality “Beta.” The composite substances which populate our visible world inevitably fall somewhere between these various extremes, yet by this thinking, the composition of any particular substance can always be defined with reference to absolutes, absolutes which can only exist in opposition one to another. Contribute heat, and thereby we move the object further from the primal absolute of cold. Take away water, and so much less does the object partake of the primal absolute of moist.
Taking the four primary composites of these qualities — what we would call the four elements — we have Fire (warm and dry) opposed to Water (cold and wet), and Earth (cold and dry) opposed to Air (warm and moist). Even in non-occult circles, there is the sense that each element acts as foil for its opposite. So when the practicing Magician first encounters the Watchtowers — and whatever their true origins and natures, they certainly seem to function as intelligences which personify the four elements — there arises the very natural tendency to perceive these four godforms as opposed, one to another, or to employ the paradigm and parlance of game theory, as engaged in a zero-sum game.
In the social sciences, the field of game theory has emerged to explain various social and economic interactions among several actors. Game theory proposes an individual faced with choices can be regarded as an essentially rational player of some game with defined rules, an actor who makes decisions and selects strategies in order to maximize their own self-interest. There exist many different kinds of games, with various actors and rules. One particularly crucial distinction is that between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. In zero-sum games, one player can only advance when another loses ground by the same amount. If there are only so many bricks in existence, and all available bricks exist as part of two houses, then my house can only expand when yours contracts. (I would very much enjoy a new game room. You weren’t using that foyer, were you?) In non-zero-sum games, by contrast, one player’s advancement does not have to come from another player’s loss, and often there exist cooperative strategies by which all players may advance together. (Let’s work together to build shelter which we can share!)
By the default paradigm, one element meets and potentially neutralizes its opposite upon the zero-sum field of battle. Fire does battle with Water, and vice versa. Earth does battle with Air, and vice versa. According to this paradigm, an individual Watchtower seeks power and influence over the unfolding cosmos, and this power can only come when the influence exercised by the opposing Watchtower wanes. The question arises: Does this conflict-oriented paradigm constitute a legitimate way of viewing the world, and particularly the realms of magical phenomena? Does one elemental force, viewed as rational player attempting to maximize its power and expression, acquire and exert this power only at the expense of another elemental force?
I believe not. To realize the elements are not engaged in zero-sum competition, we need only to consider the visible world. The universe we experience is scarcely possible if we assume all the force of the four elements ultimately sums to zero. In any composite substance, one element would cancel out the opposing element, until only one was left. And yet in our diverse world we almost constantly find objects with the occult properties of opposing elements. Blood bears all the fluidity of water — and, in fact, blood is mostly water — yet blood carries the heat and sustenance so closely associated with Fire that we can hardly consider one without the other. Mountains extend their roots deep into the element of Earth, yet climbing these very mountains enables us to reach skywards and into elemental Air.
Returning to the field of magical correspondences, and especially those found in folk magic, we observe composite elements which defy any attempt to characterize the world as zero-sum. Citrine is one species of quartz, an expression of Earth, and yet citrine bears all the magical resonances of elemental Air. Quite recently I lit incense scented with pink carnation, an object brought to life by Fire, yet with energetic vibrations much more akin to Water. Indeed, “opposing” elements don’t so much neutralize one another, as they engage in complex interactions — often graceful dances, occasionally violent clashes.
As above, so below — So speaks the ancient and timeless wisdom penned by Hermes Trismegistus. Just as there are four elements which, together with ineffable quintessence, compose the macrocosm of our visible world, there are four elements which compose the microcosm of the human experience, and each macrocosmic element finds its echo within the microcosm. Thus we correlate the Mind with elemental Air, the Soul with elemental Fire, the Heart with elemental Water, and the Flesh with elemental Earth. Within these pairings, we discover further evidence that straightforward oppositions — and the resulting conflicts they suggest — rest upon an ultimately untenable paradigm, for the apparent oppositions implicit within the microcosm flow along different lines. Within the human spirit, the intellectual Mind is opposed not to the Flesh, as the macrocosmic Air-Earth relationship might suggest, but to the emotional Heart, which properly corresponds with the macrocosmic element of Water. Likewise, the physical Flesh finds its opposite not in the Mind, but in the spiritual aspect of Soul, an aspect which metaphorically burns with the passionate energy of elemental Fire.
Does the microcosm of the human experience really rest upon lines of battle different from those of the macrocosm? Does elemental Water quench elemental Fire outside the human soul, only to find its counterpart of human emotion at odds with the microcosmic equivalent of Air? Do the four elements we know so well, both outside and in, obey one set of interactions above, and quite another below? Such a disharmonious arrangement seems at odds with the Hermetic saw, and I daresay with our experience of the world as Magicians. My solution, which I hope will be no great innovation for most of my readers, is simple: To assume a world of straightforward, binary oppositions, subsisting within the context of a zero-sum game, misses the beautiful and terrible complexity of our world.
The apparent oppositions between Fire and Water, Earth and Air, are nothing more than assumptions which we as humans make about the most primal components of our world, assumptions which ultimately fail to capture adequately the complex interactions of these elemental forces. Likewise, our own microcosmic experience of the apparent conflict between Flesh and Soul, Mind and Heart, are persistent and pernicious illusions which keep us from conceiving the human experience as this experience really is. To be sure, we conceptualize such oppositions quite naturally within the context of our shared culture, and not without reason. The mistake is in assuming that these elemental forces exist in perpetual conflict with one another, a zero-sum game wherein one element only gains at the expense of another. Rather, we must consider the alternative model of the non-zero-sum game, wherein all players can advance (or decline) together. If we consider the Watchtowers as elemental intelligences which participate as players in the universal game of reality, we can observe more clearly the ways by which our shared reality reflects this essential premise of non-zero-sum games.
Considering life in all its myriad complexities, we observe life forms composed of all four elements, whether we regard the macrocosm of classical elements or the microcosm of human experience. These forms of life, upon the material plane and elsewhere, assume ever more sophisticated ways of interacting with their world and with one another, and while I’m hesitant to assign moral value to complexity in itself, certainly the development of sentience and the capacity for magical interactions with the world points towards life-affirming tendencies which evolve across time. This evolution occurs not within the context of a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, but through non-zero-sum interactions wherein — through the complex dance composed of cooperation and dynamic tension — the Watchtowers intertwine to create the sophisticated and magnificent world we perceive everyday. Within this world, Air can imbue with power objects made from Earth, and the vibrations of Water can be placed in motion by the power of Fire.
Perhaps even more critically for the practicing Magician, across the human experience we all conceptualize certain oppositions which dissolve upon genuine introspection. The philosophical paradigm into which our civilization defaults recognizes a vast conceptual divide between human reason and human emotion. Through the Enlightenment, emotion was often shunned as something passive, something by which the outside world impinged upon the soul, all too often to the individual’s detriment. Today, alternative fields of study which brush up against the New Age movement often suffer from the opposite extreme, denigrating reason in favor of commitment to one’s emotions. The conflict between these two aspects of the psyche arises at least in part based upon our English language, which places Mind and Heart in opposition to one another. (By contrast, the German language contains the one expression, “geist” — etymologically related with the English “ghost” — which encompasses both Mind and Heart as one singular entity.) Understanding these apparent oppositions cannot lock the elements into zero-sum conflict, we can instead focus our attention upon those ways via which Mind and Heart can work in concert, in order to effect our True Will.
Mayhaps the most cogent argument for the conception of elemental interactions as an essentially non-zero-sum game may be found within the Magician’s Circle. Within this astral construct, we call all four elements, both macrocosmically and microcosmically. (And indeed, both macrocosm and microcosm meet within the context of the Circle!) As we call each of the Watchtowers, the power flowing into our Circle grows ever stronger, precisely the opposite of what we would expect if the apparent oppositions neutralized one another and summed to zero. Rather, we acknowledge all four elements both without and within, and through this acknowledgment we become part of the cosmic dance, the dance of ever increasing complexity which arises from non-zero-sum encounters among the primal forces of creation!
Over the coming months, I challenge you to consider the ways in which the elements combine and interlace to compose the beautiful and terrible cosmos which we inhabit. I’ve offered my intellectual arguments against that view of the universe which reduces to conflict, and ultimately to annihilation into a zero-sum state. I simply don’t believe we inhabit so bleak a cosmos. My faith in the cooperative nature of the elements, however, stems from something more experiential, moments of precious insight acquired through magical practice and developed with heartfelt introspection. I challenge you to practice, to reflect both with Mind and with Heart, and to arrive at those cosmic truths which best speak towards your experience of the world.
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey
By the dragon’s claws, I crush the hex.
By the dragon’s wings, I dodge the hex.
By the dragon’s breath, I burn the hex.
— Dragon-Shield Chant by Grey Glamer
As a student of witchcraft, I endeavor to understand not only the practice itself, but also the reasons why witches do what we do. For myself, I find my magical practice much more meaningful when I reflect upon my actions. By meditating upon the nature of my spells, I gain deeper insights about my Craft, and even more crucially, a greater understanding of my unique place within our shared cosmos. Know thyself! This maxim — carved by the ancient Greeks upon the stones of Delphi — rings just as true today. Consequently, whenever I design or develop spells for my own use, I endeavor to shape those spells around my penchant for introspection.
For many witches and magicians, one of the first magical experiments to be undertaken is the crafting of magical shields. Magical shields are essentially defensive thought forms which turn aside or otherwise disable all the harmful energies that might come the caster’s way. While I persist in the somewhat controversial conviction that the number of genuine magical assaults is generally overstated — and those curses which do occur are rarely effective — in fact there are psychic and spiritual dangers out there, including curses and bindings cast by others, malicious and dangerous spiritual entities, and all manner of life-negating energy patterns. (I don’t deny there are real threats, mind you. I do believe that by searching for the obvious demon, we miss the soul-draining pessimism of our workplace, or the broad malaise of clinical depression. Most of the bad things out there don’t speak backwards or writhe when splashed with holy water!)
Once deployed, these magical shields interact with the surrounding energy patterns, and with a little introspection, the reflective witch acquires a deeper understanding of the cosmos as streams of energy. Do your magical defenses flare up brightly in the presence of certain people or situations? An instinctive activation of shields could signify unhealthy or harmful configurations of magical energy flowing from the circumstances, information which subsequently allows you to consciously protect yourself from harm.
Is your significant other yelling at you? Shields keep your emotional center from taking the verbal lashing personally, which enables you to approach the underlying issue constructively. Is your workplace draining your reserves, so that when you get home you crash in front of the television? Shields protect your personal sparkle of enthusiasm, even when you’re surrounded by drudgery or stress. Properly understood, magical shields guard against much more than formal curses and full-bore demonic sieges.
The process of developing magical shields itself teaches several valuable lessons. For one, the aspiring witch learns to raise and direct power towards magical ends. Moreover, the manifestation of effective shields demands good visualization skills; even the relatively simple egg of white light suggested for beginners encourages the caster to hone his imaginative focus. And as we’ve already seen, deployed shields teach us much about how energy flows through our immediate environs.
Beyond these immediate benefits, I believe the study of magical shields can teach us something more, something important about how we approach magic. The crafting of psychic shields can be a deeply creative endeavor, insofar as we employ different visualizations to effect specific ends. The basic shield deflects harmful configurations of energy, which is already a monumental leap over the alternative of getting struck. In my experience, however, very few witches and magicians cease experimenting once they achieve the basic egg-shaped shield formed from white light. Rather, they experiment with different forms, which deal with harmful patterns in unique ways. I suspect most practicing spellcasters who read this have implemented porous shields which selectively allow in positive or beneficial energy patterns. More exotic shields are possible, though. One may design and deploy thought forms which catch and hold the harmful patterns like flypaper. Adopting the opposite extreme, one may cover one’s shields with psychic grease and watch harm slide away harmlessly. Visualizing mirrors can even turn harm back upon the sender!
For some months, my usual pattern of shields followed my training in Aikido — accept the force of the strike as gift, then redirect this force towards the ground, where the energy can be recycled into healing forms. I still find this visualization extremely helpful when confronted by threatening circumstances. Still, my inner witch has been eager to experiment of late, and especially with the intersection of shielding and invocation.
Invocation is something which many people — many witches included — find intimidating. To invite another presence into one’s very being takes courage, and perhaps some small degree of insanity. On the other hand, I don’t believe we should fear the process of invocation, when we consider everything — everything which ever was and ever will be — already exists within every individual’s soul. The Goddess — by whatever name you call Her — exists inside you now, whole and healthy, patiently waiting for the mystical moment when you acknowledge Her presence. Likewise, every possible Form exists — in potential — inside your imagination. Invoked beings don’t arrive from without; they awaken from within! Once you grasp the whole complexity of the cosmos lies before your fingertips, genuine magic becomes possible.
With this paradigm in mind, I set out to develop protective invocations which could function as magical shields throughout the day. This experiment requires some rethinking of the traditional paradigms. Most purposeful invocations occur within some defined space and time, usually marked by a magical circle or some like means, even if the experience itself takes on the mystical transcendence of space and time. Shielding, upon the other hand, engages the proverbial back of the mind throughout the day. To hybridize the two practices, I needed to invoke my chosen Form, and then “set” the Form into a defensive posture for my daily activities, much like programming a burglary alarm and then arming the system. I’ll touch upon this process again momentarily.
For my first such experiment, I elected to invoke a dragon-like pattern of shields, emphasizing three particular aspects of the dragon — the claws, the wings, and the breath. The choice of a complex pattern was deliberate. I think one potential pitfall confronting those who consciously shield is the tendency to create one extremely powerful response for every problem. The issue here is plain: There is no single ideal response for every harmful pattern which may come our way. The deflection provided by an egg of white light is very effective against a wide range of threats, which together with its simplicity makes the bubble an ideal place to begin shielding. To borrow from the cliche, hammers are good at solving several construction-related problems, and they’re fairly easy to wield, yet when you possess nothing but the hammer, everything else begins to look like so many lengths of galvanized metal! Applying the metaphor back into my endeavors, I’m looking to broaden my magical toolbox.
The first aspect I invoked was the claws of the dragon. I envisioned my hands and feet sprouting razor sharp talons backed by inhuman strength and speed, which would then shred harmful energy patterns before they could reach my emotional core. Some threats require the witch to challenge magical force with magical force, though unlike the generally passive bubble-shield, this layer of defense actively seeks out and crushes those things which would bring harm. Moreover, I would add as caveat, the destructive element here severs harmful connections and influences, rather than wreaking havoc more directly upon the sources of such malign patterns. Often the author of some hex or other invests some significant portion of their focus or power into the negative patterns which they send out: When they lose their investment, such enervation is upon them.
Not everything is amenable to sheer force, however, even when such force is applied with the utmost skill. Sometimes the best solution means stepping out of the way and letting the negative pattern sail past harmlessly. This is fundamental to the soft martial arts — when the strike arrives, be somewhere else! Adopting a psychological mindset for a moment, this can mean rising above the fray and not taking a verbal assault personally. The dragon is a deadly predator precisely because he’s out of reach until he wants to close. Thus I envisioned the dragon’s leathery wings emerging from my back and bearing me aloft, above the realms where negative patterns dwell. Magical assaults generally don’t possess power over us unless we give them such power. So teaches the dragon!
The third aspect I invoked was the dragon’s fiery breath. The breath is perhaps the most emblematic element of the thought form we call dragon. We should take note the breath is something closely connected with spirit. Within the language of ancient Greece, the two words are one and the same! To conceive the dragon’s breath — or pneuma — to be laced with flames also acknowledges something important about his spirit. The flames are transformative, the powerful element of alchemical fire which converts one substance into another. By invoking the breath of the dragon, our own spirit takes on this transformative character. Sometimes the proper response to magical assaults isn’t outright destruction, or even evasion. Rather, with our thoughts and our words we can transmute harmful patterns of energy into something positive, spiritual ashes from which the flowers may blossom or the phoenix may rise. Energy itself is morally neutral, only the configuration of energy renders some particular pattern either life-affirming or life-negating. By taking the energy of the magical attack as a gift, we can transmute deleterious patterns into something more beneficial. This process isn’t always easy — Flames do burn, after all! — yet transmuting woe into weal can make for some of the most fascinating and satisfying magic.
The process that I’ve outlined here is an ongoing magical experiment, but one which has met with some success so far. Establishing shields by invoking a thought form does require practice. The visualization itself requires imaginative focus, and I find such shielding requires somewhat deeper reserves of magical power than relatively simple eggs or bubbles. Having shielding which not only dispatches the harmful pattern, but also recognizes and implements the best approach for each threat, requires somewhat more subconscious activity. Still, I think this price is well worth paying. Engaging the broader world with informed and creative magical tools requires intense personal effort, and I’m willing to give some to approach the cosmos more constructively. After all, this same cosmos provides all the magical power we could ever want! Thus we give some and we take some, always learning more creative ways to channel the goodness of the world.
I hope my notes here offer you, my readers, something to consider whenever you design your own shielding spells. Be creative, and don’t be afraid to broaden your magical toolbox!
©2009 Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey