Book Review - Josephine McCarthy: Magical Knowledge I, Foundations

There is a significant difference between ritual and visionary magic. Unfortunately it is so significant, so essential in nature that for people who have practiced ritual magic for years it's quite hard to get their heads around it. It's actually not unlike trying to solve a creative thinking puzzle. It bends your brain until it hurts - or someone shows you the solution (at least in my case that is).

To fully understand the impact Josephine McCarthy's Magical Knowledge I can make on traditional ritual magic it is important to better understand this puzzle first. Well, here is my take on it in a nutshell... 

In ritual magic the essential goal is to summon spirits. In most cases they are either summoned into a triangle or a black mirror. And in most cases it is their voices heard by the magician that are proof of their presence. In rare cases success might go beyond this and the spirits appear visibly on a surface or in a fleeting body made of shadows or smoke. The one stable condition in all these cases is that the spirit is summoned to the place where the magician resides. And as this place is always somewhere on the material realm ritual magic forces spirits to come through in a realm that is different to the one they naturally dwell in. So far so good.

The only problem is that the spirits actually very rarely 'come through' fully. Most magical rituals work much more like a phone call. The carefully created sigil together with the name of the spirit work as the telephone number, the circle, altar and paraphernalia make up the telephone booth and by use of evocations, suffumigations and barbarous names we hook ourselves into the power network...  

And that's exactly where things have gone wrong in ritual magic - at least for the last three centuries. Most of us - speaking as ritual magician myself - have adopted exactly this concept at the core of our practice: these days our 'Arte' revolves around trying to make the best phone calls. We treat the process of reading out telephone numbers like arcane secrets and apply anal rigor and discipline in learning international, country and local area codes by heart - just to dial into spirit country and waiting for someone on the other line to pick up the receiver... Funny enough, more often than not it seems to work.

Yet, if you approach things thoroughly learning how to make your first proper phone call will take years. It requires studying ancient magical telephone books (i.e. Grimoires), redialing dead numbers that worked a hundred years ago as tenants have long moved, as well as learning the traditional ways of touching the dial plate - right index finger only! - and learning welcome and goodbye messages from the Middle Ages by heart...

And while we are all so incredibly busy with reading, interpreting, re-enacting the modes of telephone rituals, we have forgotten one truly essential thing. And that is to put down the receiver, to unplug the phone, to get our valleys out of the cupboard, pocket a loaf of bread, some cheese and a knife, put a note on the fridge - and leave the damn house.

And that's the difference between ritual and visionary magic. In visionary magic the practitioner of the Arte is taught how to travel where the spirits reside. Instead of dialling them up, you go out and explore the land, the living energies and currents, the pathways and temples of the spirits themselves. 

Now, Magical Knowledge I is not a textbook on visionary magic. It actually goes well beyond that. It's goal - in my eyes - is to help us bringing these two worlds back together again. In its core it is a book that teaches how to create and open doors between the spirit and the material realms. In order to do so it strips down the ritual magical process to its bare bones: a room, a candle, a bowl of water or a stone and complete silence. From there onwards it's all about the magician traveling out into the realms of the spirit and bringing back contacts, their influence and presence into the material realm. Essential, raw, hard and beautiful work.

So instead of summoning gatekeepers this book teaches you how to become one. The most essential ingredients on this journey, however, aren't the magical skills you are taught in most occult orders or training books. Your ability to create, open and watch these doors between realms depends on very different things - and certainly not on a lionskin-belt or a carved ivory wand. What will define, cripple or expand your skills and works as a magician are the natural interfaces through which we all continuously communicate with the spirit realm - without training or telephone calls that is. These interfaces are your true intent, your heart's emotions as well as your everyday state of mind. 

The book is the first in a trilogy and its subtitle is called 'foundations'. I guess, that's a pretty accurate description of the point one should have reached on their magical and general life's path to start the type of work laid out in it... Before any foundations can be build a single fixed point is needed. The very first step in building any temple of the ancients was to find the place where it should come through. Often this place was shown to the priests by the gods. In our case it won't be that easy. We need to find out ourselves if and when we are ready to commit, to lay the first stone of our own foundation in working with the inner contacts. 

Each door opened, each ritual conducted in a contacted way comes with no uncertain level of personal responsibility. It's the responsibility for one's own intent, for one's body and mind that will be affected in no ambiguous terms, but also for the contacts we work with and the land and the others we affect in this work. The time has to be right for you to embark on this journey.

Personally I have made telephone calls for the last 15 years. I am still continuing to do so in my Arbatel Experience. It's a wonderful way of learning and exploring. And most of the time it is done by listening to what the spirits on the other end of the line actually have to tell me. Many magicians have come a long way using this approach. Just look at the impressive results a liminal magician like Jake Stratton-Kent is able to produce with his classic approach based on the old Grimoires - yet not abused as telephone books but brought back to life again through the spirits that once helped to write them. 

Magical Knowledge I is essentially different from this in two important ways. As discussed above it stops performing magic form telephone booths - but rather teaches how to cut a door into the wall for the magician to step through into the inner realms and encounter the spirits face to face. Yet, it also lays the foundation for a completely different level of magical work. One where the focus of the work isn't on the wishes and desires of the mage, one where magic isn't used as a delivery service for the magician's needs. But one where the magician steps back into the ancient chain of beings - connecting spirits, demons, angels and humans alike - and starts to work unconditionally in supporting not his work but the work that has to be done.

So this book will be a precious gift to you if you are ready to let go of your own magical agenda. If you are ready to ultimately turn into a magical tool on the altar of some larger beings than we can image, if you are ready to trust. If you aren't ready, however, take your time. 'Cause otherwise its techniques could give you a smooth ride on a road along the coast of the spirit realms - that leads right down to self-ruin.

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I am well aware that I haven't spoken in detail about the actual content, chapters and exercises shared in the book. For this review I felt it was more important to look at the place of this important publication in light of the modern Grimoire Revival as well as the classic approaches to teaching ritual magic in the West. 

Now that we know where this road will take us it's time to kick into action. So for a closer look at the actual exercises of the book I invite you to join me on future posts to come - where we will take some of the exercises from theory into action and look at the results they yield in practice. Quite astonishing results that is as I can tell from the practice I conducted so far. Yet as this type of magical work falls under the category of 'magic with gloves off' we better brace ourselves - and chose if we are ready to pay the full price before we make the first step.