On the History of Magic - A few Practical Considerations

A very good reason to study the history of magic is to break free from it. We can think of a tradition as a huge, manoeuvrable typecast. Follower of a tradition just as much as opponents or scholars often are busy re-assembling the pattern of boxes, taking off and putting on new labels and summarising and publishing books in which they present their most recent snapshots of the typecast as a definite version. If we desire to work with the actual practices, techniques and ideas stored away in each of the tradition’s panels we unfortunately cannot avoid to work through some of the labels and arrangement of subjects as well. However, we can decide with which attitude and to which end we are doing this.

As I am sure we all experience it, often times people ask me if I ‘do’ yoga or meditation. Of course in order to start social talk you want to understand in which boxes of the typecast you are both spending your time. That’s only fair and pragmatic. Yet, in accepting such categorisation we unfortunately lure our ego into the game at a very early stage. Such questions quickly lead up to further questions such as: Am I a yoga practitioner? Am I a martial arts student? How frequently do I need to practice daily, weekly, monthly to genuinely answer ‘Yes’? More and more these days my answer is ‘I am not sure.’ 

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem being put into a box; if this makes life easier, let’s all be okay with being a little boxed up. The problem that comes with it, however, are the tacit boundaries such compartmentalisation implies. Real commitment to walk a certain path doesn’t stem from the desirability of the label this sticks upon us but from the commitment to the actual experiences we aim to stay engaged in. Real commitment to pursue certain experiences accepts that it is going to be a meandering path. A path that is artificially confined and straightened by labels such as ‘yoga’, ‘meditation’, ‘ritual’, ‘magic’ can never be genuinely our own. Nature doesn’t do labels. It is way too rich and winding to be confined in any one category at a time. 

Another word for freedom is nakedness. It comes for a price and often times is hard to endure. Yet being ‘naked’ of labels and categories is quite a powerful state to assume. It allows to explore all sorts of things without our ego getting in the way. Your subconscious just stops telling itself things like this: ‘Oh, I need to meditate again as otherwise I am thrown out of the ‘meditation’ box...’ ‘I need to train my yoga again so I can out-yoga my peers and yoga myself to the top drawer...’ — What might be useful in sports or academia really has no right to exist in spiritual traditions. Because wherever still alive, such traditions are about living encounters, not about the archiving of experiences. I hate to say - but often the very moment you step into that box, you pierce the needle through the butterflies back. Certain (spiritual) experiences have become so rare and elusive in our modern world, they are immediately blocked by our brains if we hold pre-conceived ideas about how we are meant to experience or 'perform' them.

Ritual magic is a fascinating case example to this. A tradition that is highly unstable in its actual transmission, yet incredibly persistent in its existence. The idea of an orthodox version of any grimoire really is a paradox in itself. What these books are, are records of personal experiences - written down from the practitioner’s perspective in the attempt to define and pin down the actual practices that opened the door to his particular experiences. As such they are equally stable and fluid. They are stable in that the attempt is undertaken to enable a specific kind of experience - or encounter might be a better word? They are highly fluid and changeable though, in that they represent the actual workbook of individual practitioners. If genuine and authentic in nature, then these workbooks’ authors had no problem in evolving, changing or overthrowing traditional instructions of practices - as long as the new found path led to more reliable personal results.   

Ritual magic is a ‘set of texts that flowed in an almost entirely discrete stream of transmission: demon conjuring, angel magic, and the theurgic arts, such as the Ars notoria, that emphasised the mechanisms of religious rites, dreams, and visions. For enthusiasts of this sort of magic, discovering truth was less about logical elaboration than about experience and revelation. (…) In fact, the mythologies written into the texts themselves encouraged the view that truth might very well not be found in any magic text, since ritual magic was less a repository of truth than a vehicle for its discovery. (…) It is clear that scribes evaluated magic texts and regularly altered them on basis of changing religious sensibilities, practical experience, or even what they took to be instruction by numinous powers brought about by their practices.’
— Frank Klaassen, The Transformations of Magic, p.3-4

If you try to get from A to B it’s a smart move to follow existing guidance. At least for as long until you know the territory well enough to explore it yourself. Then you might discover shortcuts based upon changes in the territory that allow for new passages or due to simple oversights by previous travellers. However, finding such a path, your own path, in most cases requires straying away from tradition. Innovation in and - even more importantly - genuine knowledge of a certain topic can only be achieved through subtle balance of following and leading.

We follow the tradition to learn, to begin to see, to grasp and understand as well as to build foundational skills. Once these things are acquired we either get stuck or begin to roam. And it is the value of this stage, the roaming, meandering, winding path that is easily forgotten in a world that tries to optimise for orthodoxy, efficiency or instant gratification.

We ‘lead’ ourselves out onto our own path by consciously giving up on preconceived goals or ideas of success. The true journey begins when we are ready to travel without an arrival time in mind. This is especially true from the point of view of spirits attempting to work with us. A closed mind is very hard to get into; in most cases it first needs to be shattered and broken before it can take in new information. Spirits attempting to work with us expect us to be co-creators, fellows and partners - not rushing commuters from one ritual appointment to the next. The stories they have to tell us, we can only hear when we stop talking to ourselves. Now, in order to shut up our minds, we need a relatively high degree of freedom. For example the freedom of fear of failure in successfully replicating desired results.

For the spirits to talk to us, we have to be okay to be naked. However, every tradition comes in the shape of a uniform. It gets you access to certain places, but you can change or even drop it when you are done with learning.


Frater Acher2 Comments