Book Review: '20th Century Magic' by Alan Richardson
Yesterday I finished reading 20th Century Magic and the Old Religion (originally published as 'Dancers to the Gods') by Alan Richardson. Well, to be honest, I didn’t finish the whole book but just its long biographic introduction which is why I bought it in the first place. What follows from there - and what I only read in excerpts - are about 70 pages of the personal magical diaries of Christine Harley and Charles Seymour respectively as well as the rare article The Old Religion by Charles Seymour.
Now call it an introduction or the first of three small books bound into one, I believe Alan Richardson has done us a huge favor in not only publishing the diaries and Seymour’s long lost article - but maybe even more so by bringing together and sharing so much unique detail of the founding story of the Society of the Inner Light (SIL).
Let me pause on Sunday morning therefore to share the things I learned from it. Once I had time to read through the full details of the diaries and Seymour’s article I might continue this little series with further thoughts... hopefully not contradicting what I found to be so meaningful in the first part of the book.
- At the crossroads - or being formed from the inside out
- The temple is carried by two - or the seer and the mage
- Sitting down with open hands - or working without decoration
- The risk of the gifted - or burning out in magic
May the serpent bite its tail.
1. At the crossroads - or being formed from the inside out
Alexander the Great when invading in India in the 4th century BCE encountered the wise Brahman teacher Dandamis. Amongst many other things he learned a very simple truth from him:
“Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong.” — Dandamis
Truth also is this ‘other’ often rests inside of ourselves. We all know the struggle between differing life-visions and plans and which one to pursue. We believe we need to chose our teachers, we need to chose the books we read, the experiences we allow to pass and others to pursue, we believe we constantly have to choose or even design our own path. And so often the way we make these choices is through discourse with ‘the other’ inside of ourselves... Unfortunately, however, we might well both be wrong. Our minds and conscious choices might have much less affect on the path that lies ahead of us that we make ourselves believe.
The ways by which Dion Fortune met her first teacher Dr. Theodore William Carte Moriarty, by which Christine Hartley and Charley Seymour met each other or - even more significantly maybe - by which the early SIL adepts made contact to their inner guides was never a process subject to to deliberate choice. As always in life it might seem easy to connect the dots looking backwards. Yet, when we are in the present situation our deliberate minds might be much less in control of what’s going than we might want to believe.
“(...) the real value of the contacts is not in the supposed information it puts across but in the peculiar energy of which the mage can avail himself.” (Richardson, p.71)
All the significant encounters in the early SIL days happened not because people tried to control and direct their own fates in a conscious way - a risk that certainly is much more tangible for magicians than for people not involved in the occult. The contacts didn’t come through because Dion Fortune lay awake at night pondering wether to choose the red or the blue pill. Whenever we start to discuss these things with ‘the other’ inside ourselves, it’s helpful to remember we both might be wrong after all... Many of these incidents that led on to create important chapters of our modern Western Occult Lore happened because the people involved were ready to accept what was placed in front of them - full stop. They were willing to give up control while standing at the crossroads.
When you read the magical diaries of Seymour and Hartley this becomes really obvious: Up to the very moment when they entered into the Inner Realm they often did not know what would happen once they crossed the threshold. What made their journeys and workings so significant was not only their skills, their talents and the tides of timing during which they performed them, but also their inner readiness to be guided and formed from the inside out.
These days - especially with our artificial emphasis on the Grimoires - many magicians have inverted this direction in their practice. So during the early workings of the SIL the dynamics were inverted to what we often see today: It was the inner contacts who provided the chalice and our human conscious was the wine that was poured inside. The spirits provided the altars and temples and direction to the work that needed to be done - and our human spirit bodies provided the transmitting substance which allowed the forces involved to come together in one inner place and cross over thresholds that can only be bridged by human minds.
When reading Bill Gray’s biography I mentioned this insight already. I guess this was because his way of practicing magic follows the same magical tradition as Dion Fortune’s. Yet, Alan Richardson’s book on Hartley and Seymour provides so much more in depth evidence of how critical this simple rule becomes when embarking to work with inner living contacts.
2. The temple is carried by two - or the seer and the mage
Closely related to the above is another insight Richardson’s book helped me realise. He mentions it almost casually on page 61 in relation to Christine Hartley’s path towards adepthood:
“By 1937 her training period was over. She had learned the art of ‘conscious mediumship’ (...). Nowadays it is known as mediation.” (Richardson, p.61)
Now, part of why this is so exciting and new for me is because I grew up in the German language tradition of magic. As mentioned before, this is a path designed for the sole practitioner mainly - by eminent authors such as Agrippa von Nettesheim, Paracelsus, Karl von Eckartshausen, Franz Bardon, H.E. Douval, Karl Spießberger, Gregor A Gregorius, Emil Stejnar or Frater V.D. Of course there would be many more names to add. However, what most of them have in common is that you will not come across the differentiation of the skills of a Priestess and a Priest as it seems so present in the Anglican tradition of magic until today: While the former is bound to create contact and bring through inner power, the latter guides interactions and decisions - as much as they are in control for the adepts on their inner journey. Also, it has to be called out that these two titles - as far as I understand it - in principle do not denote gender, but inner makeup and talent of the adept.
Now, much of the traditional German language literature on magic covers the subject of meditation, astral projection or pathworking in great length and detail. However, in all these training manuals the active part remains on the side of the magician. Silence is always created to be filled by the voice of the magician - in order to evoke, order and banish thought-forms, elementals, demons or spirits - but rarely in order to listen to them. That the goal of the early SIL curriculum was such a simple yet powerful thing as ‘conscious mediumship’ made me pause and reconsider the Why behind years of practice I had gone through...
Today the reality for many practitioners is that they need to become a priestess and a priest in one. They need to open the gates of powers - and keep them open - themselves while also interacting with the consciousness and beings that come through. It might simply overtax most of us and ruin the results - but looking at the current scene of Western magic with its significant focus on individuality it still strikes me as the path many of us have embarked on.
Jason Miller just recently shared a wonderful post on why meditation matters in magic. I expressed my deep consent in the comments section - and added that it actually shouldn’t be for the learner to choose which subjects they are taught. I know this will make me sound incredibly old fashioned and conservative - really out of touch most likely with the preferences of the young generations of magicians as Millenials. I guess that’s fine for me - and it is certainly fine for magic itself. The painful truth is: when learning a new craft, when embarking on a training that will take years of practice and dedication - and a lifetime to maintain - all of us will encounter long passages where our curriculum might not match our preferences. If we are not ready to accept this simple truth, it is our own preferences who will always limit what we achieve and get to experience in life... At least good old Faust would not have appreciated such close confines.
So when I look at my own path and present day training - thanks to the examples of Fortune, Hartley and Seymour I am now conscious of a new perspective, a new choice. In every exercise I do, I am free to explore wether it strengthens my inner priestess or priest - and which muscle, which inner conscious mind might be better developed already? The goal is not to chose one over the other of course but to keep both in balance - our inner seer as well as our inner mage.
3. Sitting down with open hands - or working without decoration
Another fascinating insight of the book is the diversity of types of magical workings and partnerships we encounter. We learn about group rituals in small and crowded temples set up in the middle of pre-war London. We also learn about small group workings surrounded by practitioners and fellow mages who simply would sit in the same room and listen in. Yet, ultimately we learn that the deepest types of magical experiences on a personal level were made in very small sub-groups of the actual lodge, comprised of two or three practitioners only...
This diversity of magical settings reminded me of our modern research on group dynamics - and how we cannot help but for sub-groups to emerge once a larger team or lodge has been formed. Again, once the doors are open it is really not for us to judge how the work will get done.
“The modus operandi of their work was simple. Wearing their voluminous cloaks to shut out worldly influences, they sat down on the chairs (...), held hands, closed eyes, and projected their consciousness beyond the pylon gates into the Otherworld. (...) Seymour knew great magicians had no need for wands: a pointed finger was just as effective. They had no need for elaborate chalices: the cupped hands did the same work. And so his magic was simple. All they did was hold hands.” (Richardson, p.73)
The outer simplicity of the significant magical work performed by these adepts is astonishing. The book is charged with wonderful examples of what many call ‘the path of the empty hand’. It almost evokes the impression of an inverted dynamic: the more simplistic the outer elements of a ritual the more powerful the inner effect - if performed by the right person with the right skills of course. Like a lens bundling rays of light - a simple gesture of hands becomes the focus point as well as the true expression of strong tides of inner magical forces. Nothing else is needed. “All they did was hold hands.”
Josephine McCarthy teaches the very same type of magic in her Magical Knowledge series. Her vision of the void involves nothing but lighting a candle - the most powerful magical act if performed with the right intent and inner focus.
During these types of rituals the human body itself becomes a living magical symbol: The two bodies of Hartley and Seymour sitting opposite each other holding hands - they are the magical circle, the wand, the cup and the mirror of Arte. Nothing else is needed, not because magical paraphernalia do not matter. But because they matter so much that they start to blend into ourselves as we progress on our magical paths. Only few can start out with this type of magic. Most of us will need to take the normal route: Starting at long intervals and years of meditation, through to creation of a physical temple with all its implements and only then - after years - being able to work with the empty hand alone.
The more power is drawn from the outside in, the more outer symbols turn into decoration. All they leave behind is their outer forms - like dead skins - while their spirits commune with us on the inside. And only once this stage of the magical work has been achieved, will the adept be able to truly direct the flow of forces from the inside out.
4. The risk of the gifted - or burning out in magic
The actual magical risks involved in e.g. performing a pentagram ritual incorrectly, misspelling hebrew names on a talisman or forgetting to banish after a planetary rite aren’t any larger then say, forgetting parts of your equipment when going on a field trip. It often doesn’t matter too much in hindsight, it might make the journey less comfortable in some and helps us learn and prepare better next time in most cases... The more we advance and gain access to deeper levels of power this changes of course.
“In such rites each man becomes a true lightbearer, and stands in an energy field of almost tangible weight, feeling as though his mind is peeling open like a bud, revealing the flowing jewel within, glowing with the Spiritus Mundi that dwells inside, awaiting its call.” (Richardson, p.58)
Once we have locked into currents such as the early SIL adepts, some of the original GD mages or of course prominent examples such as Aleister Crowley during certain parts of his life we have arrived in a completely different world of risks. Here the affect of a single ritual act cannot only cost our sanity or actual lives but impact future incarnations in manifold ways.
Richardson shares a wonderful example of such a situation towards the end of his introduction to the magical diaries (p.80f). Here curiosity leads a small group of practicing mages to approach the threshold at which inner succession of a particular line of magic takes place - the most sacred place for any particular current. The effects are felt immediately and in no insignificant ways: a full council of inner priests rule over the karmic effects of their foolish deed - stripping some of the mages from their magical contacts and binding others into new karmic constellations for life times...
Gaining access to as well as continuing to handle and interact with such high levels of powers therefore affects practitioners on all levels - mentally, emotionally and physically. Most adepts can only deal with this weight and impact for a limited period of their lives - before they either lose their contacts or burn out physically and / or emotionally.
“Crowley, who was burned out by power handled at high level while still comparatively young, was said to have sacrificed the love aspect of his potential in order to gain knowledge and power. The apparent idiosyncrasies of the advanced magicians are one of the consequences of the work they do, when this is not made stable by a solid and supportive outer life.” (Richardson, p.85)
Reading Richardson’s book four elements stood out for me in the early workings of the SIL that potentially contributed to increasing the level of risk under which these adepts were working:
- Much of their work happened in the aftermaths of the First Wold War and in the run up to and during the Second. Thus outer lives were imbalanced by nature of the time; society was under influence of huge waves of destruction and change. In an environment like this the balance and support our everyday lives need to provide to the demanding inner work are easily lost or even never established in the first place.
- The SIL promoted an ascent on the tree of life that followed the mystical route or what is often called the Rainbow Path as opposed to the Hermetic Ladder. Thus the practitioner would be led into Malkuth and then upwards through Yesod and from there directly into Tiphareth (p.59). While this certainly is the swifter way to climb the tree it is also the path that creates higher risks of imbalance for one practice and life. Taking the longer route from Yesod via Hod and then Netzach often creates years filled with additional practice and experiences - allowing the mage to mature more organically and thoroughly before being exposed to the strong forces of Tiphareth.
- Some of the adepts working as part of the lodge and in its sub-groups were highly advance magicians having gained access to deep levels of power. The forces and contacts they brought forth affected all people working with them equally (p.33). Just like objects exposed to radiation - even though they aren’t the source of it - are affected by the experience as well. Participants with less magical skill, stamina or resilience were therefore exposed to tides of power significantly beyond their capacities. While this can often lead to an acceleration of their own development as adepts, it equally comes with the risk of not being able to integrate the new forces at such a fast pace.
- Finally, the actual act of integrating new magical powers / beings into our spiritual skeleton and emotional personalities is an intricate process in itself - mainly unexplored these days still. Often the integration happens through experiences that are perceived as ‘tests‘ or challenging circumstances in the outer reality of the practitioner (p.59). The nature of these experiences often appear to us in the mirror image of the force that is being integrated. Thus power can be integrated through experience of powerlessness, desire through coldness, wisdom through being at one’s wits ends, etc. This law of magical dynamics and progress lies at the heart of why the biographies of so many people involved in magic make such sad reads. They simple paid more attention to making contact than mastering integration.
Looking through my notes in the book there would be many more things to be said about it. The biographies and life sketches of our magical ancestors hold so much in store for us to learn and build upon. Despite all the advancements in approaches, techniques and attitudes towards magic it might their flaws and failures in their own lives that hold the most powerful lessons for us. Understanding why and at which point they lost their balance, the broad perspective and got too absorbed in their own vision of their work is crucial for us to understand. It is crucial so we understand where we have come from, and how the fundaments have been built from which we work today. Yet, it is even more important for us not to repeat the same mistakes over again.
Richardson’s book 20th Century Magic and the Old Religion is full of such lessons - I hope I could share a few them according to my own understanding above. Even though long out of print today it is a book I highly recommend to all practitioners of the craft. We will all find different fragments of truth in it and surely aspects of ourselves.