Veiled Issues: Anachronism in the Occult
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.
- 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