The Key to Evocation: Zodiacal Decans

April 30, 2010 by  
Filed under evocation, magick, qabalah, theory

The Key to Evocation: Zodiacal Decans

Matrix of Possibilities

There are many ways to perform the operation of theurgy and the evocation of spirits. Most of those who practice this kind of magical operation work through one or more of the many available grimoires. However, there are other ways to perform this operation that have little to do with the old grimoires; yet these other methods require the invention of a completely alternative magical technology. A practitioner is generally stuck between using existing information and available materials or creating something entirely new. The path that I took was to create a new methodology for invocation and evocation; but the clues on how to proceed were already well documented, even though they were subtle and obscure.

Ever since I first examined the Goetia of the Lemegeton, or Lesser Key of Solomon, I have been fascinated by those entities called Goetic Demons, but found the methodologies for invoking them to be too abbreviated and incomplete to be entirely useful. Others have made use of this grimoire, but I found it beyond my ability to produce an effective methodology for evocation. I also found the 72 angels of the Shemhemphorasch (ha-Shem) in this same category, even though they were not specifically listed in any grimoire that I had at the time. To me there seemed to be a lot of pieces of occult lore without the ability to pull them all together. So I tended to work with the spirits and powers that I was able to access through my developed ritual systems, and ignore all of the other spirits that didn’t fit into those structures.

However, when I first read Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth and also studied Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn (specifically, Book T) there seemed to be a new structure implied that might associate the tarot, astrology, Qabalah and the hierarchy of spirits into one unified system. That structure was found in the 36 Naib cards of the minor arcana of the tarot and the 36 astrological decans.

Aleister Crowley discusses that there is an associated spiritual hierarchy with each of the Naib cards, stating it as such: “It is governed from the angelic world by two Beings, one during the hours of Light, the other during the hours of Darkness. Therefore, in order to use the properties of this card, one way is to get into communication with the Intelligence concerned, and to induce him to execute his function.”1

Crowley goes on to write that these two spirits are the angels of the Shehemphorash and that there are a total of 72 of them, corresponding to the five degree astrological segment of the “quinaries,” or what I refer to as the quinarians.2 Crowley omits relating the astrological decans to these 36 Naib cards, but he does use the old style planetary rulers that are associated with them in assigning the planets to these tarot cards. One can see this illustrated in a table on page 283 of the Book of Thoth.

Book T goes further than Crowley by not only showing that the astrological decans correspond to the 36 Naib cards of the tarot, but also that there is a larger matrix consisting of the 16 court cards and the four aces.3

So it would seem that there is a very tight tabular system consisting of all of the 56 cards of the lesser arcana. This tabular system can also be used to represent a spiritual hierarchy of the four elements, the ten sephiroth of the tree of life and the twelve signs of the zodiac. The one association that is missing is where the decans are shown to be hierarchically related to the quinarians, since the former would represent a ten degree segment of the zodiacal wheel and the latter, a five degree segment.

A decan would therefore be the higher order structure of two corresponding quinarians. What this means is that the decan and its associated spirit correspondences rules over the associated quinarian and its spirit correspondences. If the angels of the ha-Shem and the demons of the Goetia are associated with the quinarians, then the angelic ruler of the decanate would be their hierarchical lord, and the decan would be the key to the quinarian.

Clues to the nature of the astrological structure of these spirits are found in the lore from the Golden Dawn and Alesiter Crowley. In the book 777 (cols. CXXIX CXXXII, CXLV CLXVI), the angels of the Ha-Shem,4 angelic rulers of the decans and demons of the Goetia are organized by the zodiac, using the ascendant, cadent and succeedent parts of the wheel of the zodiac, by day and night.

It would seem that the number 72 would lend itself to occult interpretations, being a multiple of six times twelve, both very sacred numbers in Judaism. Also, there already was an astrological structure for the quinarians as lesser aspects of the decans, so I think that it would fit into a neat hierarchy.

I don’t know where this idea originally came from, but I was using existing schemes for all of this, as well as hints from Aleister Crowley in the appendices of the Book of Thoth, so I didn’t invent it.5 As a system it fits really well together, and it’s better than using the Shemhemphorash as a unique and separate set of spirits without any correspondences. As I have stated above, determining a context for spiritual entities so that they may be defined and highly qualified is important if the magician seeks to invoke them.

When I carefully researched the clues, I found where the angels of the Shemhemphorash were given their astrological correspondences. It was in Agrippa’s Book III of Occult Philosophy, Chapter XXV, paragraph 6. Agrippa writes: “And these are those [angels of ha-Shem] that are set over the seventy two celestial quinaries.” So if the angels of ha-Shem are set over the seventy two celestial quinarians, then their hierarchy would naturally be associated with the 36 decans and the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and also with their associated archangels and angelic rulers. This relation between decan and quinarian is not spoken of either by Agrippa or anyone else, but is alluded to in Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth,6 and also Book T of The Golden Dawn. If you put what he says together with the tables in 777, you come up with the system that I am using. To my knowledge, no else quite makes all of the combinations that I have made; but it seems to be functionally elegant.

Needless to say, I was quite thrilled at how neat and tidy all of these various elements were pulled together through the cards of the Lesser Arcana of the Tarot. I speculated that if one could identify the various correspondences associated with each of these cards, that one could put together a system to invoke and evoke all of the associated spirits. So, after basking in this wondrous revelation, I set to work to build a system of magick that would do just that.

To recap, the angelic ruler of the decan and tarot Naib card has the following hierarchy:

  • Element godhead
  • Qabalistic sephirah
  • Zodiacal base element
  • Zodiacal triple spiritual intelligences (archangel, angel, house ruler) — these qualify the specific zodiacal sign
  • Planetary ruler of the decan
  • Angelic ruler of the decanate
  • ha-Shem angel of day and night
  • Goetic demon of day and night (from Lemegeton — Goetia)
  • Angel of the zodiacal degree (From Lemegeton — Ars Paulina — Part 2)

Obviously, if one were to perform an invocation of the angelic ruler of the decanate, one of the angels of the ha-Shem, or one of the Goetic demons, then one would establish or invoke the associated spiritual hierarchy, beginning with the element godhead. Tools used to assist in the establishment of these qualities would be the pentagram (element), lesser hexagram (astrological triplicities), greater hexagram or septagram (planetary ruler) and the enneagram (sephirah).

My methodology uses a technique that defines a spirit through a matrix of correspondences and generates the elemental body and planetary intelligences of the spirit from them. I will defer that explanation to a future article, but I believe that the above information is enough to get occultists thinking of an alternative method to performing invocation and evocation.

Importance of the Astrological Decans

So, what is the importance and significance of the astrological decans? Even if they seem to fit into a nice tidy structure that defines a whole hierarchy of spirits, why is it such a compelling structure by itself? These are good questions, but in order to answer them, we will need to share some historical information about the decans. Once that is done, I am sure it will be obvious why they are significant.

The decans have a long history in the annals of magical religion — the Egyptians had minor deities associated with each of them and these play an important part in the Book of Gates.7 The decans are used in horary (predictive) astrology to determine the dignity of planets in the divinatory chart and they have been represented in both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian theological systems as sidereal gods of time and destiny. Thus the magician contacts the angelic ruler in order to realize and control his destiny, and to affect the general causality of the world. The decans were also used by the Egyptians to indicate the hour of the night.

What gave me a startling clue to the importance of the decans is when I came across a passage in the book Magic, Mystery, and Science — The Occult in Western Civilization by Dan Barton and David Grandy. That passage said that the Egyptians used the decans (and their associated godheads and marking stars) to determine and qualify the hours of the night sky. During the night, the decan that appeared at the ascendant (eastern horizon) would tell the Egyptians what time it was. A decan period would last approximately 40 minutes, so for each night approximately 18 of the 36 decans could be revealed. During the changing of the seasons, the evening would potentially begin with a different decan over time, passing through the whole zodiacal wheel during an annual period.

So the decans were possibly used as magical hours during the night, but these hours would have lasted 40 minutes instead of 60, and each decan would have been accorded a different minor godhead and quality, not to mention the 12 gates of the diurnal solar boat transit through the underworld.

It would also seem that the Egyptians used a system of reckoning when attempting to determine the hours at night, using the decans passing over the horizon as a kind of clock. Since twilight would have made this reckoning impossible, there would have been 12 hours of night associated with the decans, since making this measurement would have required complete darkness. Dawning light would have also potentially interfered, so there would have been an hour and a half both before full night and before dawn when such reckoning would have been impossible.

A device called a merkhet (plumb line) was discovered in an Egyptian tomb. This tool, whose invention was late, probably around 600 BCE, was used to determine the north-south axis. Two of these devices were set up in a specific measured line from each other, and the subject would observe the rising of the decan star between the line of these two devices. It’s likely that this late tool was based on more primitive technology, which would have been used to perform the same kind of sighting.

Another interesting thing about the decans is that every ten days a new decan would appear at the horizon at the first observable hour of the night. It’s from this array of 36 decans, each lasting ten days, that the Egyptians determined their solar based calendar, where the last decan coincided with the period just before the annual inundation of the Nile river. They had a yearly calendar of 36 decans with five days added to the end to make 365 days in all. The five additional days would probably represent a 73rd quinarian in the Egyptian astrological system, but that is another interesting item to discuss in another article.

As you can see, the decans were used to measure time during the night. They also represented the hours of the domain of the underworld, where the solar boat and its occupants fought the threatening chthonic foes in order to gain passage to the gateway of the dawn in the east. This underworld passage occurred every evening, but to the Egyptians it represented the mythic passage from death and mortality to the immortality of the gods — an initiation cycle of profound consequences.

If we now observe that the decans and the Naib cards of the lesser arcana of the tarot are analogous, then not only do we have an elegant system of occult correspondences, but we also have a map for an aspect of the Inner planes, governed by various spirits and representing the underworld passage of occult initiation.


  • Barton, Dan and Grandy, David Magic, Mystery, and Science — The Occult in Western Civilization (Indiana University Press 2004)
  • Crowley, Aleister 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley (Samuel Weiser, 1994)
  • Crowley, Aleister The Book of Thoth (Samuel Weiser, 1972)
  • Regardie, Israel The Golden Dawn (Llewellyn — 6th edition, 1995)


  1. See The Book of Thoth p. 43
  2. David Griffin, in his book Ritual Magic calls them “quinants.”
  3. This association was first documented in the Golden Dawn material, particularly Book T — Tarot. See The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie, 6th edition, p. 87 & p. 551.
  4. Actually, the angels of the ha-Shem correspond to nine of the ten sephiroth of the tree of life for the four suits of the tarot, paired by day and night. Pulling the various pieces together requires a correspondence between the decans and the Naib cards of the lesser arcana of the tarot.
  5. The Goetia of Dr. Rudd has paired the angels of the ha-Shem with the Goetic demons. The relationship of the 72 spirits to the quinarians is quite old, and may be a part of the ancient system of astrological magick, such as that proposed in the Picatrix (11th century). However, there is no precedence for grouping the decans and the quinarians together, and organizing the associated spirits into a hierarchy.
  6. See The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley, “Part I — Theory,” p. 40 — 44, and “Appendix B,” p. 283
  7. The Book of Gates, or Am-Tuat, was a hieroglyphic book depicted in Egyptian tombs of the New Kingdom, but may have been conceived from earlier sources. The Tomb of Seti I is a prime example.

    Frater Barrabbas is a writer and practitioner of witchcraft and ritual magick. He has published two books — Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick, and the two volumes of a trilogy, entitled Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Foundation and Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Grimoire. The third volume in this series, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Greater Key will be published soon. You can contact him at this email address and visit his website.

    ©2010 by Frater Barrabbas.
    Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Differing Models

April 30, 2010 by  
Filed under magick, theory

Differing Models

The diversity of esoteric exercises and rituals fill volumes, the variety systems of magickal practice is known and accepted, and yet that there is more than one way to look at what magick “is” and how it “works” seems overlooked, and the effects are not insignificant.

My magical philosophy was early informed by chaos magick, and when I first read about Frater U∴D∴’s four (or five) models of magick it made a great deal of sense to me, aiding greatly in my understanding of how people who experience the same phenomena can interpret it in such a variety of ways.

Frater U∴D∴ understood these models as a progression in human thinking (see “The Paradigms of Magic” in High Magic, especially p. 373-383), but these models co-exist in magical theory today. The four (plus one) models are as follows:

The Spirit Model

This could also be called “The Theists’ Model.” In this model of magick, gods, angels, demons, spirits and discarnate entities of all types exist and can physically and/or psychically possess, inspire, and communicate with human beings.

The Energy Model

In this model various forms of energy are posited as the source or medium through which magick works. Expressed forms may include Reiki, chi, astrological vibrations, healing energy, magnetism, crystal energy, amongst others.

The Psychological Model

This model can also be misconstrued as a “Skeptic’s Model,” as it adheres to a strictly psychological interpretation of magical effect. That said, this model should not be dismissed as “mere” psychology; psychology is a powerful tool.

In the psychological model, “spirits” might be interpreted as a neurosis of some sort, and any physical manifestations are determined to be psychosomatic in origin, and can be reasoned with therapy.

The Information or Cybernetic Model

The magician here works with pure information. For instance, in the information model a particular “spirit” may be seen a negative meme, or unit of information, which has “infected” its host, and requires replacement with a more effective and useful meme. This is a newer approach, and so has not gathered much of a recorded history of yet, but it is one which is continually gaining in popularity.

The Meta-Model

A magician working from a meta-model may work with a combination of these models, or simply use that which is determined to be most effective for the rite at hand, regardless of what the magician hirself believes.

The Models in Action

Most people work from a variety of models, without realizing the effect the tone of their belief has.

For example, a ceremonial magician may work with Enochian or Goetic systems (spirit), practice pranayama (energy), and seek deeper connection with their current (spirit/energy). An atheistic magician may perform the exact same rites and practices, but acknowledge the root of its effectiveness to be rooted in changing mindsets (psychological) or memetically-derived (information).

The experienced Pagan may believe in a god and goddess pair or an entire pantheon (spirit), while working with meridians and chakras (energy), have an interest in memetics (information), yet believe the monster hir daughter fears under the bed has been fabricated by fears of the unknown (psychological).

The sophisticated chaote, on the other hand, may slip between models as need dictates. For instance, suppose a friend is having a rough time which they interpret as a string of bad luck (energy) and this is affecting their mood, relations with family and work (psychological). A chaote may propose demonizing this bad luck, projecting its effects onto a demon (spiritual), which can then be ritually exorcised with much fanfare.

As Jordan Peterson writes:

We all produce models of what is and what should be, and how we transform one into the other. We change our behaviour, when the consequences of the behaviour are not what we would like. But sometimes mere alteration in behavior is insufficient. We must change not only what we do, but what we think is important. This means reconsideration of the nature of the motivational significance of the present, and reconsideration of the ideal nature of the future. This is a radical, even revolutionary transformation, and it is a very complex process in its realization – but mythic thinking has represented the nature of such change in great and remarkable detail. (Peterson, 1999, p. 14)

The effect of reshaping the belief in “bad luck” to “demonic activity” and banishing the personalized form is an exceedingly effective approach to ridding oneself of this influence. Its success may or may not be due to banishing a demon (spirit), releasing tension (psychological) or ridding oneself of “bad luck” (energy) — however it happens, it works.

The “Truth”

So which one is correct? Well, all of them, kind of.

In his essay “Models of Magic” Frater U∴D∴ describes the following theoretical exchange:

“Are there spirits?”
“In the spirit model, yes.”
“And in the energy model?”
“In the energy model there are subtle energy forms.”
“And what about the psychological model?”
“Well, in the psychological model we are dealing with projections of the subconscious.”
“What happens in the information model, then?”
“In the information model there are information clusters.”
“Yes, but are there spirits now or not?”
“In the spirit model, yes.”

The matter of which is always “true” or “right” is never addressed because, ultimately, it’s not relevant. Use of a single model can be limiting, and even the most hardcore atheists can appeal to the spirit model to help a friend in need.


  • Frater U∴D∴ “Models of Magic,” on, 1991. Last updated 14 December 2002.
  • Frater U∴D∴ High Magic. St. Paul: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2005.
  • Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 1999.

©2010 by Psyche.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

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

Lesser Wheel of Fortune and Practical Magick

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under magick, theory

Lesser Wheel of Fortune and Practical Magick

We have covered the greater wheel of fortune and how it’s associated with the solar return and the point 180 degrees from the solar return, or halfway in the annual cycle. This greater wheel of fortune is very important to know if one is going to work magick to change one’s material situation.

There is also a lesser wheel of fortune that involves the moon and this lesser cycle is more characterized by the emotions than by material gain. It’s an important truism that if the emotions are not aligned with one’s greater material purpose, then one’s endeavors will ultimately fail.

This lesser wheel of fortune has the same basic components as the greater wheel. The natal chart lunar position is extracted and the halfway point in this cycle is determined by plotting a position that is exactly six zodiacal signs ahead of the natal moon position. For instance, my natal moon is in Gemini when the moon was gibbous (just before full), so the halfway point would be the moon in Sagittarius when it is balsamic. So I can use either the lunation types of gibbous and balsamic to represent the natal return and halfway point or I can use the signs of the moon in Gemini and Sagittarius. Either set of points have their validity.

Now for me the emotional wheel of fortune works like this: When the moon is gibbous or in the sign of Gemini, I am typically feeling very emotionally centered, grounded and fulfilled. When the halfway point is achieved, then my emotional state is decidedly muted and turned inward. It’s a time when I am not as certain of myself and feel compelled to question my motives and the things that I usually take for granted. The natal lunar point is an emotional high point and the halfway point is one of instability, where the unconscious mind is more able to affect me and my emotional sense of self.

The key to this emotional wheel of fortune is that it’s better to perform magical workings so that they achieve their climax up to but not beyond the full moon. The waning moon represents particularly difficult times for me and it’s much better to use that time for reflection, divination and contemplation, allowing the unconscious mind to unload some of its internal pressures and negative or dark self-perceptions in a controlled environment. It’s also a good idea to synchronize the greater and lesser wheels of fortune so that magical workings and mundane actions involving material advancement occur during the better half for both cycles. For me, that would be the second half of my solar year when the moon is gibbous. I would also be advised by these cycles to avoid taking risks during that same time when the moon is waning and nearing the new moon phase.

We can also analyze the transit aspects of the natal moon with the transiting moon and get a very clear idea of the kind of forces that are active. Like the sun, we can examine the aspect where the transit moon is in conjunction with the natal moon and the aspect where the transit moon is in opposition to the natal moon.

Transit Moon Conjunct Natal Moon

This is called the lunar return and it occurs once every month. It represents the beginning of an emotional cycle. It’s a time of emotional sensitivity and emotional intensity. It has a magnetic effect and tends to attract external events and people to its emanating field. Another way of examining the Lunar return is to determine the precise lunation type found in the natal chart. This represents the lunation type that one was born under, so it becomes a powerful emotional base for the individual.

Transit Moon Opposition Natal Moon

This aspect represents deepening moods and powerful emotions. One becomes self-absorbed and loses objectivity, which tends to create emotional oppositions with others. It’s definitely not a time to be dealing with relationship issues, business partnerships or emotional issues involving family or friends. It is a good time to go deep into the self and retrieve insights and directives from the deeper self.

So you can see, there is a Greater Wheel of Fortune involving the solar return and a Lesser Wheel of Fortune that involves the lunar return. Both cycles need to be carefully examined, and dates where both cycles are at their optimum can be chosen for the working of material based magick.


©2010 by Frater Barrabbas.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Frater Barrabbas is a writer and practitioner of Witchcraft and Ritual Magick. He has published two books — Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick, and the two volumes of a trilogy, entitled Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Volume 1: FoundationVolume 2: Grimoire. The third volume in this series, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Greater Key will be published soon. You can contact him at this email address and visit his website.

Anatomy and Organization of the Star Group

January 23, 2010 by  
Filed under featured, general practice, magick, theory

Anatomy and Organization of the Star Group

Ever since the advent of Masonry, individual occultists have sought to unify and organize themselves into a collective to facilitate group ceremony, study and collaboration, often using the Masonic lodge as a model. A Masonic lodge has temporary leadership roles, and Masonic brothers are considered to be equal no matter what their social status, degree or role. Perhaps this is why many founding fathers of western democracies were members of Masonic groups. Masonic lore seems to perpetuate the ideal that all men are created equal, despite the fact that initiates and cowans (outsiders) are treated differently. Yet a spirit of egalitarianism pervades Masonic organizations even to this day. This is especially true in the more basic Blue Lodge, which promotes only three initiatory degrees and a rotating hierarchy.

Grand lodges and larger aggregated organizations forewent this spirit of equality and produced a hierarchy of individuals vested with various degrees of authority and power. The Societas Rosecruciana In Anglia and the Golden Dawn were based on this later kind of organization, and other groups, such as the O.T.O., invested certain individuals with authority to ensure that the local bodies as well as the grand lodge had trusted individuals to maintain continuity and stability. Many of today’s occult groups modeled their organizational structure loosely on the model of the Masonic blue lodge or grand lodge. Others have deviated quite remarkably from the Masonic belief in the equality of all members. However, Masonic lodges have shown themselves to be capable of extreme longevity, withstanding change and still operating long after the deaths of the original founders. Fraternity and equality arguably play an important part in the endurance of these groups.

In the various religious groups of Wicca and Neopaganism, there is a trend in which a grove or coven is headed by an autocratic leader or small group of elites ruling a larger group of novices, often with no checks on their authority and little accountability. I have personally experienced the abuses that can occur within Wiccan covens, but the fault is to be found wherever groups invest their leaders with near dictatorial powers. This is true whether or not these individuals have the qualities and experience to be good leaders. If leaders are gifted and skilled at leading, then a benign aristocracy is formed; otherwise, the worst kind of cult of personality and autocracy can develop. The fact that ritual magick and godhead assumptions can be practiced in such groups makes the effects of bad leadership even more damaging.

This is probably why many ritual magicians prefer to work alone and retain their autonomy despite the benefits of belonging to a group. Many magicians started out belonging to a group or organization, but seldom do they stay for more than a few years. Being alone and completely isolated is not a good idea, either. Regardless of the religious or spiritual background of magicians, they tend to branch out, discovering that performing magick for its own sake is more rewarding than belonging to a cult or creed.

The choice to work magick within a group is often made because all magicians need peer review, objective viewpoints, and solidarity, which are critically important to one’s spiritual growth. There is nothing more stultifying and potentially dangerous than the practice of complex and intense ritual magick in complete isolation. While working magick alone is at times necessary, a magical practitioner should have recourse to a peer group of other magicians to balance the intensely subjective nature of ritual work. Having a group of experienced and knowledgeable friends to judge one’s work is very important. In fact, it’s probably the only way that a ritual magician can maintain balance and objectivity. A peer group keeps individuals honest with themselves and helps them to understand their spiritual and magical processes in an objective manner.

Since ritual magicians are not common, such a peer group will be small and intimate. It may not even be centrally located in one’s own community. Because of Facebook, MySpace, blogs, email and Yahoo! groups and chat rooms, the social network of a ritual magician may be entirely virtual. Yet it’s important for a practicing ritual magician to have friends and fellow magicians his or her physical neighborhood so that he or she may periodically meet them and have intimate conversations about personal, spiritual and magical topics. I maintain that a virtual community, although helpful, can never replace real social contact between individuals. Much more is communicated through phone conversations and face to face to meetings than could be written in blogs, chat rooms or email. These same close friends will share common ideas, swap books, look over rituals together, examine excerpts of each others’ magical journals, and perhaps even perform rituals and ceremonies together. When a loose confederation of ritual magicians starts working magick together, then group organization will naturally develop.

Rituals magicians, like many occultists, aren’t known for their social skills, diplomacy or empathetic abilities. They are usually absorbed in their own practices and perspectives, and they generally despise authority figures within their own discipline. They don’t like being ordered around or told what to do. They are independently minded and probably even a bit anarchistic, eschewing any kind of formal group dynamic. This is my question and the central theme of this article: How do you get a group of ritual magicians to function as a creative, sharing, objective and harmonious organization? The answer to this question is to use what is known as a “Star Group” model.

What is a Star Group, one might ponder, and how does it differ from other kinds of groups? First, a Star Group is an autonomous, egalitarian collective where each member is an equal and respected partner, functioning as an integral facet of the whole group. A Star Group is particularly sensitive to the phenomenon of the egregore, also known as the group mind. The leadership roles in a Star Group are temporary and carry little or no real power or authority. The true authority is vested in the group itself and all decisions are determined by a process of consensus.

I define consensus as a mutual agreement in which, for any given decision, a majority of the members of the group are for it and no one is against it. Abstention does not count as a negative vote unless there is not a majority who are for it. An objection from any one of the members of the group will force that decision to be either shelved or altogether abandoned. This kind of rule-by-consensus ensures that a majority will not override the objections of even the humblest member. All individuals are heard and decisions have the backing of nearly everyone. The person who presents the idea or direction to the group has the responsibility to sell it to everyone so that no one finds fault or objects to it. Getting a small group of ritual magicians to agree nearly unanimously to a given plan of action is no small matter, but it can be done. In fact, it must be done so that everyone feels that they have been intimately involved in the decision making process. When the group makes such a decision by consensus, the outcome is guaranteed to be satisfactory to all of the members. Leaders are essentially facilitators with all of the responsibility and none of the authority. Thus no one person can abrogate the power of the group and the equality of everyone is fully protected.

I can almost sense the eye-rolling from my readers after proposing this kind of group. The first objection is that such an organization will not be able to accomplish anything substantive if there isn’t someone who makes the final decision and acts as an overseer. Hierarchical groups seem to be more efficient, goal directed and practical. Anything done by committee is guaranteed to be mediocre at best, and terribly disjointed and chaotic at the worst. It often ends up representing the untutored whims and creative hubris of the least capable in the group. I have seen rituals constructed by committees and I would agree that they are usually ineffective. Yet a Star Group is deliberately small. The execution of consensus agreements incorporates the best abilities of the most able members.

What does that mean? It means that a Star Group is not driven by ego gratification, since everyone is a respected and valued member. Each has a role and a part to play. In such a situation, the group will vest an individual with certain tasks that they are best equipped to accomplish, incorporating other members to aid and assist them as required. People work together and cooperate jointly to produce the best product that they can. A Star Group is an egalitarian team with objectives and goals, and they work together with the powerful commitment of having unanimously agreed to do a given task.

Suppose a Star Group decides to perform elaborate theatrical rituals that require props and even sets. One person who is a gifted artist may produce the sets; another who is a writer would write the script; another who is a musician would assemble the music; an electrician would provide the lighting; yet another might be a costume maker and would design and sew the costumes. One individual might be chosen to act as the director, to direct the others to take on various parts in the ceremonial play. None of these individuals would act alone, since all of their contributions would be screened and examined by the whole group. Everyone would contribute materials, time, labor and money. The net result would be the combined efforts of gifted individuals working together as a group. The quality of such an effort would be far greater than what one of the members could do alone.

Would there be disagreements and sometimes heated discussions? Certainly, since disagreements and occasional arguments would be part of the dynamic. However, the overall objectives and goals of the group would have been set up early in its formation, and the members would be motivated to work out their differences in a peaceful and cooperative manner to get the work done. It might take longer to complete a project, but the level of group satisfaction and the quality of the work would be pleasing to everyone.

Contrast this same effort as applied to a hierarchical group. If the leader is smart and knows how to motivate people, sensing their needs, strengths and weaknesses, then the assignment of roles may show a high degree of wisdom. It may also show a high degree of favoritism and cronyism, since those who are favored by the leader would get the best roles. It would be guaranteed to be done in less time, but it probably would not be satisfying to the whole group unless the leader used good judgment to correctly and accurately call the shots.

If the leader is an autocrat, then the outcome of any project may be just as disorganized, poorly contrived and executed as it would have been done by a committee. In such a situation, the hard labor would be delegated to the least favorable members and the best jobs reserved for the favorite members. A skilled seamstress may be completely overlooked because the leader’s girlfriend wants the job. Similarly, a gifted writer may be forced to do carpentry work because the leader either doesn’t know about her skill or purposefully ignores it to favor someone else. Often the leaders reserve the best parts for themselves. When the overall project fails to be fully satisfying, he blames the least favored members for failing to do their jobs. Other members who know what is really going on will resent the leader’s biased authority and either leave the group or eventually force a confrontation. A hierarchical group may have to contend with a leader’s ego inflation, unethical conduct, exploitation of other members, favoritism, despotism, incompetence and outrageous behavior.

Of course, not all hierarchical groups are dysfunctional and certainly large groups can’t function without a hierarchy. Large groups use bylaws and formal procedures to ensure that leaders are accountable, so despots or incompetents can be removed from their positions of authority. However, we are talking about small groups with less than twelve members. In such a group the temptation to acquire and hold power over others is just too great. Magicians don’t have much stomach or tolerance for such blatant examples of hubris and ego inflation, but with a Star Group, there is an alternative capable of accomplishing goals and tasks with everyone fully engaged. This is much more satisfying than what might occur with permanent authority figures.

The qualities of a Star Group can be summarized by the following points:

  • Egalitarianism — each member is treated equally, valued and respected.
  • Consensus — each decision is made through the process of consensus.
  • Leadership roles are temporary and frequently rotated.
  • Groups are fully autonomous (they answer only to themselves).
  • Sensitive to the formation of egregores.
  • Authority and power is vested in the group, not any individual.

An example of the bylaws used to organize and run Star Groups in the magical Order of the Gnostic Star can be found at this web address. (PDF; right-click and “Save target as”)

©2010 by Frater Barrabbas.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Frater Barrabbas is a writer and practitioner of Witchcraft and Ritual Magick. He has published two books — Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick, and the two volumes of a trilogy, entitled Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Volume 1: FoundationVolume 2: Grimoire. The third volume in this series, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Greater Key will be published soon. You can contact him at this email address and visit his website.

Greater Wheel of Fortune and Practical Magick

Greater Wheel of Fortune and Practical Magick

Yule — the wheel of the year turns; yet everything appears to stand still in the frozen, icy world. Thoughts during this season turn to the past as we examine and reflect on everything that has happened — from joys to disappointments.

We make promises to ourselves, New Years’ resolutions aimed to fix the flaws and invigorate the positive within ourselves.

Timing is everything. That is probably the greatest lesson to be learned from the year’s successes and failures.

In the realm of magick there are many considerations to make, such as when to work magick, when to pause and when to plan. We can examine our natal charts to determine trends, consult calendars that tell us the cycle of the moon and what sign the sun is in. We can divide the day and night into planetary hours, seeking some kind of insight as to when a given event is auspicious. Timing is everything, but in the practice of magick there is little said about when we should or shouldn’t work magick. Are there auspicious times? Does it even make a difference?

With all of these factors to ponder, we ignore one important consideration and that is the personal cycle or wheel of fortune of the magician performing the magick. Even the most optimal and auspicious signs and portends will avail magicians nothing if they ignore important factors about their own waxing and waning material fortunes. Magick done during a weak trough in the personal fortune of the magician may produce nothing or it might even cause losses and misfortune. Perhaps the most important knowledge that magicians can possess is that which will enable them to work magick on their own material circumstances, and knowing their own timing is critical to that kind of working.

In the many years that I have worked magick, I have discovered purely by accident that certain times of the year are better for materially based magick than others, and that there is a pattern to this cyclic process.

What I discovered is that there is a personal wheel of fortune that systematically turns so that half of the year has the potential for material gain and the other half is better used to plan and position oneself for more optimal times, when action can be met with success. The year is cut in half, and one half fosters increase and the other, decrease. It may not be that the poorer half of the year actually experiences losses or setbacks, although this certainly can occur, rather the richer half of the year seems to effortlessly assist one in the pursuit of material gain and personal advancement.

It’s analogous to breathing — inhalation represents internalization and re-grouping, and exhaling represents external activity and successful outcomes. Both are required for the cycle of breathing to be complete. This is also true of the wheel of fortune.

The simplest way to determine this wheel of fortune is take one’s birthday and add exactly six months to it. So if you were born on January 5 as I was, then your halfway date is July 5. So the two most important dates are the natal return and six months later, which would be a point where the sun would be 180 degrees from its natal position. I am a Capricorn according to my natal sun sign, so my annual halfway point is under the sign of Cancer.

I have found that my time of increase begins after the halfway point in the year. From there it proceeds to climax at my birthday and then declines until the halfway point is again achieved. For me, the best time to plan and reorganize is during the winter, after the holidays and before the summer. After the summer vacation period, I am ready to start putting into action everything that I have learned and determined in the previous six months. This is how my wheel of fortune works.

A few years ago I experienced a terrible economic downturn and the resultant massive debt almost forced me into bankruptcy. However, with an open mind and a willingness to do whatever it took to legally regain my fortune, I performed a large series of Elemental magical workings, starting in June and proceeding for three months. At the climax of these workings, I also invoked and charged several items with the talismanic elemental, Jupiter of Earth, during the lunar mansion called the Star of Fortune1. In addition, I put together a list of specific material objectives that I wanted to accomplish and crafted them into magical sigils, which I charged. In the intervening months, I was able to accomplish all of my objectives.

All of these events helped me to completely transform my financial situation. In fact, the magical workings still continue to aid me, often from unexpected sources. Because I worked this magick at the most important pivotal point in my wheel of fortune, it had a profound and incredible effect on my material situation. Once I discovered this pattern and realized it, I decided that it was the most important piece of self-knowledge that one could possess.

How do you determine the greater wheel of fortune for yourself and learn about your own important personal timing? The first thing that you do is to find that halfway point in your yearly cycle and note it down.

Then look at the past several years and see if you can see a pattern as to when important material advancements occurred for you. It won’t be perfect, but I think that you will find that one of those half year cycles is more auspicious than the other, which is better for planning and regrouping.

The period from the halfway point to my birthday is the most important time for material advancement. However, for others it may just the opposite, from their birthday to the halfway point might be auspicious. I don’t believe that one pattern should fit everyone, but you should at least examine all of the things that have happened to you in the past and make some kind of judgment as to what part of the year is better for advancement, and that will reveal the time that you can work magick to aid that advancement.

An astrological examination of the transits of the Sun to the natal chart Sun show that a conjunction aspect for the birthday and an opposition aspect for the halfway point are clearly delineated as auspicious points in one’s astrology. The Natal Sun is compared against transiting positions of the Sun in the paragraphs below.

Transit Sun conjunct Natal Sun

This is the Solar Return, when the Sun returns to the position that it had when one was born. This aspect represents new beginnings, the ability to perceive the whole year ahead as if one were standing upon some metaphorical ascent and looking across time at the events for the coming year. It is a time of receiving new impulses and perspectives as the old year gives way to the new2.

In some ways a birthday is a lot like a personal New Year’s day, symbolizing the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year.

Transit Sun opposition Natal Sun

This aspect represents energies in life reaching a culmination, events causing realizations, revealing a critical point of success or failure. Situations judged to fail now appear to fail. The way to success opens up and is revealed. It is necessary for one to change course or redirect oneself3.

The halfway point is a place of judgment and evaluation, where one thoroughly examines all of life’s activities, especially those that bear upon one’s fortune. Those efforts that are failing should be either drastically adjusted or ended. Those that appear to be gathering momentum for success should be steadfastly continued. New opportunities may also arise that will need to be judged as to their worth and a change in course may be called for to take advantage of them.

If one reads these two aspects correctly, then my cycle of the wheel of fortune would seem to fit them. However, it would also fit if one experienced the greater fortune on the first half of the year instead of the second half. It really depends on the individual to determine his or her own personal cycle, and once realized, it should be used to one’s greatest advantage. What is clearly indicated is that these two points in the calendar are very important to working material based magick.


  1. Al Sad Al Su’ud (#24 The Star of Fortune) Capricorn 25E 51N — see Celestial Magic by Nigel Jackson, pp. 82 – 96
  2. See Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living by Robert Hand, p. 55
  3. See Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living by Robert Hand, p. 58
  4. Bibliography

    ©2009 by Frater Barrabbas.
    Edited by Sheta Kaey.

    Frater Barrabbas is a writer and practitioner of Witchcraft and Ritual Magick. He has published two books — Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick, and the two volumes of a trilogy, entitled Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Volume 1: FoundationVolume 2: Grimoire. The third volume in this series, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick — Greater Key will be published soon. You can contact him at this email address and visit his website.

Ghosts and Glamers: What Hauntings Teach About Human Identity

December 15, 2009 by  
Filed under invocation and spirit work, magick, mysticism, theory

Ghosts and Glamers: What  Hauntings Teach About Human Identity

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.

Blessed Be!

©2009 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Veiled Issues: Anachronism in the Occult

Veiled Issues: Anachronism in the Occult

Veiled Issues

In the world of the occult, that of western magicians, shamans, Wiccans, eastern mystics, etc., there is a disturbing tendency toward chronal1 elitism.

In most schools of mysticism and magic, there is a pervading mentality that in the distant past, humans were more spiritually alive. It seems taken for granted that the greatest of spiritual wisdom and occult science were well known to the peoples of antiquity and that it was, at some point, lost. As time went on, the general public became hostile toward the enlightened soul as the structures of power worked to rob people of spiritual connection through fear and coercion. The result of this shift is the spiritual morass of the modern era; and now, in the post-modern world, we occultists have reclaimed our spiritual birthright and can lead the world back to an era of magic and enlightenment.

Urbanization and technological development — the hallmarks of the modern world — are believed by many occultists to be banes to our spiritual development. They are unnatural, and therefore serve to distance our souls from nature and the spiritual forces we need for our enlightenment. We must avoid cities, and the reliance on modern conveniences if we wish to develop our souls.

All of these beliefs stem from a sense of chronal elitism. This is the general belief that one era should be considered better than another. Amongst secular scientists and scholars, this often manifests in the belief that the present is greater than the past. It has led scholars to disregard the opinions and actions of the ancients, for they were oh so primitive and savage in those times. Today, of course, we are much more civilized and developed. We are better than they were.

It is this very disregard for the beliefs of the ancients that leads spiritual people in our time to react with hostility to modernism. Not only is this anachronistic reaction common amongst occultists, but of orthodox religious followers of every faith. Take, for example, the Southern Baptist who denies the science of natural evolution, or the Shiite Muslim who eschews modern forms of democratic government in favor of theocracy. It stems from the same feelings that lead Wiccans and shamans to retreat from cities. On the other hand, chaos magicians find themselves in line with the secular scholars by declaring the rituals of old to be irrelevant, preferring to experiment with their own, post-modern, and highly individualized methods of magic.

Chronal elitism of any kind is, in reality, equally damaging and narrow minded. And between the polarities of those who worship the past and those who worship the present or future is a middle path in which one can consider all eras objectively, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each. This is the rarest of standpoints, as it is always easier to adhere to an extreme view rather than to examine the world in a balanced and unbiased manner.

Anyone who has spent considerable time studying the rites and magical systems of antiquity cannot deny the efficacy and spiritual development of the ancients. While at the same time, those of us with a firm grip on the developments over the ages can also see where our ancestors have been grossly mistaken due to an ignorance of facts which have arisen in the proceeding ages.

The naturalist magician or shaman reading this might inquire as to how one can deny that humans have departed from nature. Most humans now live in cities or sprawling suburbs. The vast population no longer hunts and gathers for their food, nor spends time on a farm cultivating and harvesting the bounty of the land. Nay, the average human in modern society spends his or her days working in a service or labor job, and exchanges the money earned in his task for his sustenance. Rather than green fields and dark forests, he is surrounded by concrete and glass buildings. Instead of drinking from the cool stream, he turns on the faucet and fills his glass with water filtered through his Brita tap. Is this not a departure from our natural state?

The question which this author proposes is this: How are we to define “natural,” or “nature”? If we are to define natural as the state of the world where humans have made no impact, then anywhere we go is bound to be “unnatural.” No creature can live somewhere without changing the world around them to some extent. And what of nature? Must we define this as the manifestation of all things in the universe, except for man and anything he touches? If this is the case, then man has no natural place in the universe, and therefore it is entirely useless for the human race to try and be a part of nature, as by definition it cannot.

Another definition of nature is simply all which manifests in the universe. By this definition, mankind is incapable of doing anything that is unnatural, for everything in the universe is natural.

A final, and more specific idea regarding nature is to define man’s part in it as a specific type of behavior or niche, and to say that all behaviors which deviate from this lifestyle are unnatural. This, of course, implies that there is some standard of man’s natural behavior, or his place in nature, which exists outside of man, himself. Furthermore, it implies that the species of humanity is capable of breaking out of its niche and living unnaturally. This argument is essentially sound; however, it offers no objective method of defining what our natural niche is supposed to be. There are many pagans and shamans who are all too eager to tell us how we’re supposed to live, but if one asks why we should live in such-and-such a way, the answer is always self-referential. We should live that way because it’s natural. This still skirts the issue of an objective definition for nature.

When termites and beavers tear down trees and build structures in which to live, it is considered natural. When humans exhibit the same behavior, it is not. This author would submit that the city is our natural habitat, just as the mound and the lodge belong to the termite and beaver, respectively.

Serious study into the astral plane might (and I have found that it has) yield evidence for spiritual landscapes unique to the cities themselves. It could be found that the rituals and cycles of the urban habitat might be symbolic of spiritual truths altogether their own. If we listen, we might find that even the concrete and glass may speak to us and sing the song of the city, just as the shamans of old listened to the voice of the forest or field.

None of this is to decry, in their entirety, the arguments of the naturalist pagans and shamans. One of the reasons their outspoken opinion against human development has been so widely accepted is because it contains truth. The human expansion is troublesome. Not because it is unnatural, as this term is meaningless, but rather because it is disharmonious. As a species, we do not live in harmony with our surroundings, and to follow our current path will eventually lead to our own demise. We are suffocating in noxious fumes and destroying wholesale the resources we need to live. It is extremely evident that we must all seek to do our part in finding solutions for the problems of sustainability in our world.

While it is certain that returning to the Paleolithic might keep our species from destroying ourselves, we would also be sacrificing many other developments of use to us as physical and as spiritual beings.

It is often overlooked that the modern era actually affords us many a boon in our quest for spiritual enlightenment. First and foremost is the boon of access.

Due to the development of information technology, the modern magician has access to the writings of magi from all eras and places across the world. From the magical papyri of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, to the transcribed versions of folk tales from the Oglala Lakota, or the sagas and eddas of the ancient Scandinavians, magi today can become privy to information of such breadth and span as would make even the most enlightened of ancient prophets a little jealous. Additionally, many of the texts which have been brought to light through the centuries were, in their time, only accessible to a small and cloistered group of individuals, who kept their secrets well hidden from the general public.

Our sedentary lifestyle today is shunned by many of the more anachronistic in the occult community, but, in truth, magi of all eras lived sedentary lives. In fact, a life somewhat sedentary is required for one to put any serious effort into the Great Work.

In the ancient shamanic cultures, and in their surviving Neolithic counterparts today, the tribal community would have but one Shaman, and perhaps a few apprentices. These communities were primarily hunter-gatherer or sometimes agricultural. This means that the average citizen works at least ten hours out of the day, doing backbreaking labor. The reason only one person in a community can take on the role of Shaman is because the community, at large, can only support one Shaman. The Shaman doesn’t work. He may tend a garden, and do house chores, but he doesn’t spend ten hours a day working himself to the bone. If he did, he wouldn’t have the energy to devote to his spiritual task. And so, food, housing, and all other necessities are provided to the Shaman by his community.

In the empires of old, magical study was relegated to a very small priest class. The peasantry had little to no access to the papyri of ancient Egypt and Greece, and even if they did, their laborious lifestyles left little time for literacy. And, much like the Shamans, these priests and magi lived a life supported by the labors of the common folk.

While it is true that the observance and recognition of magical power has diminished in our modern era, most people overestimate the occult understanding of the ancient peasantry. While they relied on the mystics and magi, and celebrated the festivals of the seasons and the cycles of nature; the real mystical knowledge of these common folk was more superstition than genuine spiritual enlightenment.

The bottom line is this: If the world today resembled that of the past, the majority of today’s occultists would be peasants. They would not be taught to read, much less to understand the subtle energies of the universe. And even the natural adept, born into such a scenario, would not have the luxury of time to pursue serious personal study and evocations. The labor of the day, for a peasant in a technologically undeveloped culture, takes up all time and energy available. Conversely, even the poor sap scraping by on minimum wage (this author is one such sap) in our modern world will have enough time and the resources to tap spiritual power that rivals any ancient mage or shaman.

To conclude, I leave you with this: It is very difficult for people to look at time objectively. As our limited perceptions can only tell us of the present, we see the now with greater clarity than we do the past. For some, this means that we see all of the beauty of the present, in every minuscule detail, and the past, which we can only perceive vicariously through literary work or the visible remainders, seems dim and ill-lighted by comparison. There are others who use their keen eyesight to spot all the flaws of our current age. Because they can see the corruption of every man around them, and receive only brief outlines of lives long past, they color in the details with an ideal that surpasses the world they know. Both these paths are fallacious, and they are forms of self-deceit.

The hardest and truest path is narrow, and runs down the middle. We must all seek to understand our own era for all its beauty and its flaws. At the same time, it is important that we look at the past with the same clarity, that we open our third eye and allow our spirits to perceive the ancients with pathos and scrutiny at the same time. Let us not be concerned with “returning” to some erstwhile era. This is impossible; time never moves backward. And let us not, either, throw out the wisdom of our ancestors. Let us instead try to lead the world into a new era that uses the best of the past and present, and corrects the problems which have recurred in all ages.


  1. This term comes from the Greek kronos, pertaining to time, much like chronicle, chronic, chronology, chronograph. I suppose the word “temporal” would work, too, but it has other implications like transitory or passing. I like the sound of chronal better.

      ©2009 Quentin Marshall
      Edited by Sheta Kaey

The Black Book

The Black Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2009 by Donald Tyson
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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

The Study of Magick: It All Started in a Cave

The Study of Magick: It All Started in a Cave

I’m pleased to offer myself as a regular columnist on these august though entirely electronic pages. As those who have read my books or know me personally know, I’m an academic through and through, and so my conversations have a tendency to turn to lectures, and my dinner parties often become seminars. This column therefore will play to my strengths. My goal, ultimately, is to trace the connections between occult practice and schools of academic thought. I’m hoping to make this less boring than it sounds on its face, and at the same time offer something practical that the working occultist can take away.

It’s fitting that this first column begin at the beginning, the foundation of most Western occultism. Many people will tell you that Western occultism began in Egypt, and even the ancients thought so. But really, most of western occultism began in a cave, and not even a real cave but an allegorical one.

Socrates was perhaps the first professor. He liked to walk around and profess his own innocence and ignorance, and ask probing questions that quickly revealed that everyone around him was just as ignorant. He was eventually asked to kill himself, possibly because he was tedious at curriculum committee meetings. One of his students, Aristocles, a jock who no doubt offered a letter from his wrestling coach every other Friday excusing him from class, ended up rising to the top and writing quite a few books of his own. We know him by his wrestling nickname: “Fatty,” or, in Greek, “Plato.”

Now, Fatty had a problem, aside from an embarrassing nickname. He couldn’t figure out perception. It was common knowledge, of course, that we perceived the world by engaging it with our senses, but Plato had learned from his old professor to question common knowledge. And in doing so, he dug up a few problems that have plagued philosophy ever since. For one thing, he realized, we can’t really see the whole of anything we look at, touch, taste, or smell. We get only a momentary perception. Sure, we could turn a pot over and over in our hands really fast, but how do we know that the side away from us doesn’t turn another color, or even disappear entirely? Common sense, of course, but how do we come by that common sense, and how is it that everyone has it?

Plato said, or rather reported that his teacher said, Imagine a cave. In it, you are chained next to a group of like people, all facing a wall. You grew up in this cave, chained up thus, and no, Xenophon, it doesn’t matter how that happened, just shut up and listen. Now, behind you is a big fire, and people walk between you and the fire holding objects. But you are chained such that you cannot see behind you, so all you see are shadows. Now, being raised in this cave, all you know of the shape called “elephant” or “horseshoe” or “vase” are the shadow shapes on the wall, and if you could be freed and look suddenly at the real thing, you would be amazed that it looked as it did, not to mention how they fit an elephant into the cave.

This allegory describes perception. We seem to see things, but really we see their shadow, and another, more perfect world than this contains those real items. So we know that the pot continues around to the other side not because we can perceive that it does, but because we remember the ideal pot, the Form of pots, of which all other pots are mere shadows. And that’s how we can also recognize the pot-ness of a squat pot, a tall pot, a wide pot, a purple pot, and a blue pot. We know that they are all pots because, just like the shadows on the wall, much depends upon how we look upon that ideal.

Plato had a student of his own, Aristotle, who threw the whole thing into the soup by saying that there was no such perfect, ideal world. Aristotle argued that we know the Form of pots only because we have seen a heck of a lot of pots and called them all “pot.”

Thus began the epistemological (meaning, the study of knowledge) split between magic and what would eventually become empiricism. But I’ve written about that before, and so will let it go for now.

Aristotle opened a school and wrote some deeply influential books of his own, and eventually we hit two interesting fellows who founded much of what we now imagine to be magic. Conveniently, these two figures stand as symbols for two paths of magic, two ways of knowing the unseen, ideal world. We call them “Neoplatonists,” because they began with Plato’s idea that there was such an ideal world, a world of Forms, and pushed it to its natural edge: if such a world existed, and we could perceive it, could we also perhaps interact with it? Could we, in fact, use it to change this world? Could we reach behind us, as it were, and grab that elephant and yank it around, so that we could make its shadow in this world dance?

Plotinus answered, essentially, in the negative. That ideal world was perfect, and perfection by its very nature cannot change. But what we could do, according to Plotinus, is change ourselves to rise up to that world, and thus gain a clearer image of ultimate reality. If we understood what was going behind us, we could manipulate things in this world of shadows more sagaciously.

For Plotinus, and his student Porphyry, the way to do this consisted of contemplation. Sadly, we lack descriptions of what to contemplate specifically, but we can reconstruct some of it by understanding what he taught. He taught that all reality, this world of shadows, was an emanation from a perfect reality. The highest perfect reality was the One. This One was beyond all characteristics, because all characteristics imply their opposite. If the One is big, then it’s not small and therefore not perfect — by which he meant something closer to “complete.” It has to be beyond bigness or smallness. From the One comes the Nous, or Mind. This is the first thing that can be given characteristics, and the characteristic it has is “goodness.” From Mind comes the rest of the world of shadows in a successive series or ladder of emanations.

This contemplative approach survives in a lot of practices we might regard as Eastern. One contemplation, in the spirit of Plotinus and Porphyry, would be to take one’s perception of oneself and begin deleting things. For example, try to remove your sense of physical position by sitting very still. Then try to remove your emotional feelings. Then abandon mental activity and remain as pure awareness. In other words, we climb the ladder of emanations back upward to the One.

We also see Plotinus’ influence in the contemporary understanding of the Qabala, and there’s some convincing evidence that the Qabala was Neoplatonic before it was strictly Jewish. Whether you believe that or not, it cannot be denied that a ladder of emanations really does describe most understandings of the sephiroth. And the practices of traditional Qabala — recitation of names, permutation of letters, and so on — smack of the contemplative practices of Plotinus.

On the other end of the teeter totter we have Iamblichus, one of Porphyry’s students, who suggested that contemplation was fine and good, but also difficult and impractical. Most people, he said, are so engrossed in the shadows that they simply can’t get anywhere with contemplation; it’s like trying to grow eyes in the back of your head. Better, he suggested, to turn around, and the way we do that is through ritual action. That ritual action, of course, was accompanied by contemplation, but contemplation alone could never apprehend what was not rational. If you tried the previous contemplation, you may have found it incredibly difficult; Iamblichus would say, “exactly.” Ritual provided an easier way.

Ritual action for Iamblichus consisted of recognizing the symbolic relationship between ideas. After all, if we can recognize a picture of a pot as a pot, it must be partaking of some bit of pot-ness from the world of ideas. If we manipulate this symbolic image, we can begin to train our minds to perceive and perhaps manipulate the ideal Form as well. How this worked exactly we don’t really know, but certain objects were thought to embody the ideal more intensely than other objects, just as a profile of an elephant is easier to recognize in a shadow. These objects or symbols included such things as the tools of ritual sacrifice, as well as — probably — various objects held sacred to deities. By ritually manipulating these objects, one could gain a clearer view of the ideal world.

A ritual in the style of Iamblichus might involve a series of ritual sacrifices of bread or wheat, each of which represents a return of some faculty to the One. So we might symbolically enact a sacrifice of our passions so that we can more easily contemplate the One as an Ideal without passions. Of course, we don’t know exactly what Iamblichus’s rituals looked like, but we can imagine that they looked quite a lot like the ordinary religious rituals of the time, but accompanied with appropriate contemplations.

Now, of course, most occultists mix these two approaches, the contemplative and the ritual. But the old argument between the two schools still exists. Some contemplatives talk scornfully of rituals as “crutches,” for example, an idea that might well have come out of Porphyry. And even those occultists who do not profess an ideal world of forms still engage in ritual actions in which a concrete object (the athame, say) represents a mental idea (will, or defense). Finally, most occultists will decry mindless ritual for ritual’s sake. We are to remember, as Iamblichus would argue, that every ritual action is an action in the world of Ideas as well.

No matter which approach you take to magic, whether you regard it as a contemplative practice or a ritual one, you are — if you’re involved in the western magical tradition — a Neoplatonist. Of course, chaos magicians might argue that there is no actual world of ideals, and a postmodern magician might argue that ideals are just clumps of self-referential symbols, and not meanings in themselves. Yet every school of western magic must situate itself in regards to Neoplatonism; they must begin by affirming or denying the central insights of that chubby wrestler.

The root of the whole endeavor of magic is in Plato, as is the root of all Western philosophy. Magic, then, rather than being a fringe effort of a few strange men and women, is a branch of philosophy itself, with its own epistemological and ontological claims. We diverged from philosophy in the same way that chemistry and alchemy diverged, or where mathematics and engineering diverged. Where philosophy began to dedicate itself to the analysis of ideas, we began to learn the practical arts of manipulating them. In future columns, I hope to explore some of those issues of knowledge and being, with an eye toward the practical implications of the philosophical positions we take.

©2009 by Patrick Dunn
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.

Aristotle and Galileo: A Story of Two Ways of Knowing

July 19, 2009 by  
Filed under magick, mysticism, philosophy, theory

Aristotle and Galileo: A Story of Two Ways of Knowing

The teacher heaved himself from his stone seat. “Enough sitting. My knees are aching. Let’s walk and talk together,” he said to his few disciples. Other teachers had more — some as many as thirty students — but Aristotle took his pleasure in selecting the six or seven students who could best understand his teachings.

Used to their teacher’s habit of wandering while he lectured, the students gathered together styli and wax tablets and a few closely spaced sheets of lecture notes painstakingly copied from their teacher’s own notes. They gathered in a close circle around their teacher as he walked, trying as best they could to prick out a few salient notes on their tablets. Walking, talking, and juggling the material of learning forced them to listen carefully to their teacher.

“An object falls through the air,” the teacher says. “Imagine two objects — a section of that column here,” he tapped it with his staff, “and a blade of grass dropped from a height. They fall toward the earth. Why?”

“Both contain Earth in their nature, and so are drawn to the greatest concentration of that element,” said Eudemus.

“And why does the column fall faster?” Aristotle asked.

“It is heavier,” blurted out Phanias.

“Which just means that it contains more Earth than the grass,” Eudemus put in.

“And Earth is another name of mass, so we can say that objects of greater weight fall faster than objects of lesser weight. Yes?”

The students tossed their heads back in agreement.

“But why do they fall at any speed at all? Why not simply contact the ground instantly as they leave the hand? What holds them back from their affinity with Earth?”

The students thought for a while, and finally Phanias ventured an answer, hoping to redeem himself from his earlier stupidity. “The element of Air pushes against them, and Air is inimical to Earth. Every falling object is a war between Air and Earth.”

“Exactly so. Now, reason this out. If there were no Air to push against falling objects, how fast would they fall?”

“Infinitely fast,” put in Eudemus. “Which is an absurdity.”

“Therefore?” Aristotle’s “therefore” was always devastating. It meant you hadn’t finished your chain of reasoning.

“Therefore there can be no place without air. There can be no void.”

“Because if there were?”

“It would lead to a logical absurdity, and the universe is rational.”

Aristotle smiled, pleased. “Exactly so. So now let us explore this idea of the rational . . . ” And the students walked with their wise teacher into two thousand years of fame.

* * *

Galileo huffed his way up the stairs of the tower, his secretary in tow lugging not only the necessary writing equipment but a heavy bag that made a low clunking noise with every step.

Galileo had done the arithmetic and it had all worked out, but for it to work out required something nearly unthinkable. Aristotle had to have been wrong. And not just Aristotle, but everyone else stretching back between that time and this — and that of course included the holy church.

Finally, at the top, he fished two cannon balls out of his bag. Aristotle was right about the air, at least partially — air resistance would slow down an object as it fell, which is why a feather did, indeed, fall slower than a cannon ball. But two cannon balls, one of a large caliber, another of a smaller caliber, should cut through the air at more or less the same speed, being spherical. He sent his secretary to the bottom to watch as he dropped the two objects, and call out whether they hit the earth at the same moment, or different moments.

He conducted the experiment over and over, with both him and his secretary watching on the ground, and in every instance, the two balls struck the ground at the same instant.

Rather than being elated, he found himself a bit disappointed. He felt cut adrift, like a boat whose rope has finally frayed beyond control. But no, that was the wrong analogy. He was more like a horse who has realized that the line that seemed to be securely tied was, in reality, merely draped over a twig. From here, he could go anywhere.

* * *

I’ve fictionalized these two incidents because they illustrate an important shift in the way that humans thought, and this story is one central to the history of science and — I wish to argue — magic. Because I wish to argue that contrary to magic being a science, magic and science are both two ways of knowing, compatible, but independent.

But the stories I’ve told are not stories of compatible ways of knowing, but two warring systems of knowledge.

Aristotle began with the commonly held assumption that our senses can be deceived. In fact, we know this to be not simply common sense, but quite true. A simple optical illusion can reveal that our eyes don’t always see what we think they do. Our ears can hear things that aren’t there, or mistake things that are; even our taste and touch can be confused. We can drink a soda and believe we’re tasting cherry, when really we’re drinking sugar and apple juice colored red and flavored with chemicals. Our senses are inadequate.

So Aristotle joined the tradition that, since senses are faulty, we must rely on reason. This idea led to mathematics, where senses are not only faulty but useless. One cannot see “two” — the best one can do is see symbols about twoness, or two of something. But arithmetic, not to mention the higher branches of mathematics, is abstract well beyond the range of sense. So we must rely on pure reason. We know that 2 + 2 = 4, to employ the hackneyed example, because if it doesn’t everything else we know about mathematics falls apart. In mathematics, we can have certain knowledge. Of course, that certain knowledge is of an abstract system, and as later mathematicians discovered, if you start with slightly different assumptions it’s easy to end up with a different system, in which 2 + 2 does not equal four but, perhaps, eight. Yet Aristotle would argue that the real world, while not the perfection of mathematics, clearly partook of it. After all, maybe the idea of right triangles is all just an abstraction, but just try to erect a house without it. The very concrete and sensory house is built of abstract numbers.

If pure reason led to truth in mathematics, Aristotle reasoned, and mathematics led to truth in matter, then surely we could come to truth about the physical world without relying on our senses at all. We could simply reason it out from first principles. Select the right set of first principles, apply rigorous reason, and knowledge would result like a nice buttery baklava. And if we avoid the engagement of the senses, we avoid the faults that senses are heir to.

Galileo began with a different set of assumptions. While accepting that senses could be deceived, he worked from the premise that this deception could be evened out by having multiple people observe at different times. In the fictionalized (and probably apocryphal) account above, both he and his secretary make observations, and they do not stop with just one but do it again and again. In addition to building up excellent calf muscles by lugging cannon balls up the leaning tower of Pisa, this method has the benefit of certainty. We know it works because we can see it working.

I’m not a philosopher, so what I’m attempting here is a bit arrogant of me, but we can summarize Aristotle’s underlying assumptions about knowledge and compare them to Galileo’s. For Aristotle, observation is secondary to reasoning. For Galileo, reasoning is secondary to observation. For Aristotle, we make a prediction based on reasoning from first principles. For Galileo, we define principles by reasoning from observation.

The scientific revolution was a war between these two ways of knowing the world. In the end, the latter system of reasoning conquered the former, usurping it to its own purposes. Pure reasoning still has a place in the sciences — mathematics, after all, is core to all sciences and still employs reasoning that Aristotle could understand, although he might not follow all the advanced concepts of modern mathematics. Now, scientists observe the physical world and create models of reasoning to explain and predict the behavior of that world. These models are called theories. It’s easy, therefore, to laugh at Aristotle’s naiveté. He simply had the incorrect method for gaining knowledge about the world, and now we have the correct method, and so we’re done. Give us enough time and observations, and we’ll figure it all out. And, in fact, we’ve come quite far in just a few hundred years after the scientific revolution. We know — with some certainty — more about the structure of reality than Aristotle could have imagined, and we even understand how to manipulate it to some degree. Aristotle’s explanation of a magnet from first principles was clumsy and inadequate. Scientific explanations of electromagnetism allow me to use this computer to write this essay, which some of you may be reading on an electric screen that would baffle Aristotle.

The problem is, the above isn’t entirely true. Aristotle didn’t have the wrong method, because Aristotle is still quite relevant. Virtue ethics as Aristotle described them, for example, are still relevant, and literary criticism classes still often begin with his works on the structure of tragedy. Obviously, those fields have advanced in volume of books if nothing else, but we still read Aristotle there not to ridicule him but to appreciate his insights. Yet physics classes rarely — if ever — begin with Aristotle’s Phusis. It seems he got some things right — in ethics, literary criticism, and other areas — and other things wrong. We cannot simplify then and say, “this system of knowledge is the right one, and his was the wrong one.”

The war between Aristotle and Galileo was misguided on all sides. On the side of Aristotle stood the church, which had long since reconciled that pagan philosopher with their understanding of the world. On the side of Galileo stood — at first — Galileo. Then the Royal Society of London and other groups of scientists who struggled mightily and won (the Church recently surrendered by apologizing to Galileo). The Church was wrong in that indeed Galileo had the right idea about gravity and the right notion about planetary motion (with some fuzzy details). But the church wasn’t arguing that — they were arguing about his method. If human observation could discover truth, what purpose remained for God? Their error was assuming that the truth of planetary motion is the same truth as the nature of the divine. Similarly, newly minted scientists made the same error, assuming that religion existed only to explain what science has not yet gotten around to on their grand to-do list.

The reality is more complicated.

The current state of this war is between two fronts: science and religion. Science, represented (or perhaps more accurately co-opted) by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, argues that religion is inherently absurd and even deluded. Religion, on the other hand, argues that science cannot answer the questions that religion approaches. In this war of words, it is hard to tell who is winning, but the atheists are making some headway with the same sort of spurious and fallacious reasoning that they decry. It’s not my goal to enter this war in these pages; instead, I want to suggest another approach, as an inhabitant in that neutral country of magic. After all, we lost this war long ago — and yet a few of us still remain, quietly doing what the dominant culture no doubt regards as eccentric at best.

What magic offers is the model, not of war, but of a toolbox. Perhaps instead of imagining that one way of knowing the world is right and all the others are wrong, we could imagine that one way of knowing the world is very good at accomplishing a certain task, and other ways are good at accomplishing certain other tasks. The skeptic picks up magic and says “look at how empirical examination of astrology proves that it’s bunk. How can you still believe it?” This skeptic is like the do-it-yourselfer who picks up a wrench to pound in a nail. If you approach a system of knowledge, you must do so first by understanding its use.

Each system of knowledge begins with certain assumptions, axioms if you will, and has certain strengths. To understand and employ that system of knowledge you must understand its assumptions and strengths. Moreover, our toolbox must contain more than two means of knowledge about the world. In fact, magic teaches us a myriad of ways to understand the world. Most magicians pay their bills, do their taxes, and go to work like normal people living in an empirical world. But at the same time, they recognize that associational thinking — linking diverse symbols to create new ideas — can affect reality in a fundamental and concrete way.

If we imagine that associational thinking is the only tool in our box, we become superstitious and become paranoid at a world too fraught with meaning. On the other hand, if all we have is empiricism, we never examine our underlying assumptions about knowledge, our philosophical foundations, and so we can never move beyond a naive empirical view of the world into meaning. Meaning, if empiricism is the only tool in our toolbox, is reduced to data collection.

It’s clear, then, that different mental tools suit different life-tasks better. What is needed, in both science and magic, is cognitive flexibility and willingness to experiment meaningfully. I think that science can teach us something about magic, maybe even investigate some of its claims, just as magic can help us create meaning out of the discoveries of science. Yet science is not just magic that we’ve learned to understand, and magic is not just unexplained science. If that were the case, we would be the poorer for it. Our minds understand the world physically and metaphysically, and we need to honor both in order to make full use of our toolbox, and we must avoid the errors of both Aristotle and Galileo, while simultaneously respecting their unsurpassed contributions to human thought.

©2009 Patrick Dunn
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.

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