Everyone of us is forced to learn how to live life before we die. What as a toddler seems like constant play and discovery over the years turns into a raw and essential struggle. A struggle for one's own place in this maddening world. A struggle for a clear image in that mirror of knowing who we have become. A struggle of balancing what we want for ourselves with what we want to be remembered for by others. The difference for magical adepts lies in a simple choice. It lies in the choice that on top of learning how to live life they also choose to learn how to die before dying.
Aaron Cheak in his liminal exploration of a central rite of the Greek Magical Papyri does a spectacular job in revealing the mythical patterns behind this journey. Through his masterful analysis he uncovers the roots of this rite that trace back to ancient Egypt and the core ideal of passing through death into a new, a more divine life. And thus a passing into a more divine version of our selves. That's what the Greeks called 'apotheosis'.
But Aaron Cheak's essay does more than that. In a wonderful way it also exemplifies a critical milestone on that particular journey towards (our inner) divinity. His essay is a beautiful example of the forces contained in the sephira of Daath. Here - miles above the treasure house of images of the Moon (Yesod) - we experience the treasure halls of pure knowledge. Mirror upon mirror upon mirror. Each one revealing more depth and deeper and deeper knowledge of that fragile thing called man and the world around him.
Reading about death and reading about the mysteries the ancients used to experience it while still bound into their own lives is critically important. For a practiting magician though, for someone who aspires to turn themselves into an adept - or maybe a god even? - the written word can easily turn into poison. A venom that weakens their impulse for actual action and experience. Because everything seems to have been already experienced by someone. Because through the experience of reading their mind has mapped out the journey so carefully, that their body might believe it's not even worth the actual adventure. It has already happened in the mirror of their mind. Or so Daath makes it seem.
I feel grateful for the arcane knowledge Aaron shared so openly in his beautiful essay. It is rare to come across a piece of writing that is so well researched, written, designed and yet so connected to the living reality of practicing adepts since ancient times. What I can do though to help turn it from a possible trap of Daath into a springboard into your own reality, is to share a little of how it feels when these mythical patterns translate into actual sensual reality. The only way I can share this is through my own story - because everything else is just more theory.
Back in 2008 before I made contact to my HGA I spent an entire year praying to a beetle. I had made a statue of Khepera and kept it in my temple in an old barn next to our house. Only I could enter that barn. Each time I did I brought offerings to the god resting in the statue. I prayed in front of the beetle almost every day for many months with a single thought on my mind. I gave the god of rebirth permission to apply its powers to myself. I asked it to take me to the grave and to bring back another version of myself. At that time I didn't know how that process would actually look like - and there simply was no need for me to know. Just like the dreamer doesn't need to know where his dreams will take him. Once we make the decision to enter sleep everything else becomes a process of following.
After a full cycle of twelve months of adoration to Khepera I completed the only Egyptian rite I ever practiced. After that I buried the statue of Khepera in an old wooden box, together with ritual offerings and a sigil confirming the pact we had made during the rite. Soon afterwards I took on a new job that shifted my entire life. New people, ideas, values and practices broke into my life as if set free by an earthquake. In my naivety I thanked Khepera and thought this was his answers to my prayers. Little did I know this was just the beginning.
Another twelve months later I worked upstairs in the old barn for many days. Much to the annoyance of my wife. A new ritual cycle was calling, one that among German speaking adepts is called 'Saturn Exerzitium'. Over four weeks of continued practice it builds up to a rite of dying, a rite of passage. For this I had to craft my own full-sized coffin.
While every other tool of this ritual is long gone, buried deep in the Bavarian forests as part of my transition to the empty handed path, that coffin still rests in the attic of our current house. I remember when we moved in - my wife explaining the movers I was working in a theatre group and this was part of the props. And yes, that heavy, 2.5 metre long beast of solid black wood did need to go all the way up to the attice through that small trap door. After all there is humor even in the artifacts of our dying.
It was in that coffin that I first saw my HGA. It was also in that coffin that I first experienced alchemy as a physical process worked upon ourselves by angels. There is really nothing subtle to it, once you experience it for real. Dreams, memories of distant lovers, of childhood enemies are subtle compared to it. I still remember the process as vivid and bright as if it had happened yesterday.
Again, I was naive enough to believe that upon leaving that coffin the process had been accomplished. I left that adorned, black box like a phoenix from ashes. It was the same old me, but one that now had access to the part of itself that was undying. Little did I understand at that time, that any experience in ritual requires a subsequent experience in real life. To keep the scales of inner and outer worlds balanced. Going through death in ritual, required me to do the same - or almost so - in real life. Even as adepts we cannot create a reality for our souls and minds, that does not attract sympathy in the substance we are bound into. Once the door is opened, it is all of us - flesh, blood, bones, mind and soul - that need to pass through it. And each of our components in their own way.
A few years later I decided to be equipped sufficiently to face my biggest challenge yet - and to cross the Abyss. The actual rite, the actual vision of passing over the Abyss was almost effortless. These pathways have been walked by adepts for centuries, millenialls. So once sufficiently trained it is not hard at all to see and follow them. Like signing a contract, putting your wet signature on the paper isn't a big deal. The deal is what follows.
So finally, after more than six years of active magical work on the theme of death and rebirth, it was time for me to allow it to turn flesh. I was diagnosed with testicle cancer at a pretty late stage. Emergency surgery. Hospital, doctors' talk, scans hung on a wall, and a few very calm conversation about some pretty uncomfortable scenarios I had to face when leaving the hospital.
Yet, learning how to die before dying isn't done in a single hospital stay. As hard as it might seem. Confronting death is a first stage; learning how to live with its constant presence requires many subsequent stages to pass through. For your mind to accept death as a travelling companion under your own skin, it takes a lot of time. Actually, for that reality to turn into flesh it takes years of practice - just like when we pick up meditation or any other new form of art. You move slowly, through good days and bad, you master small movements, before you tackle larger sequences.
And so I am back to my cancer treatment scans every couple of months for several years now. Each time like any other patient I need to sit and wait in the radiologist's waiting room and drink a whole litre of milky fluid over the exact timespan of an hour. And each time I sit there, I put my heart back on the scales of Maat. I offer myself up to her and her soul-eating demon Ammit. I have asked for this. To learn how to die while still alive. This is my path and I walk it. Into death and out of and back into it again. Like a playground swing, back and forth, until one day it will stop.
When I then rest on my back, arms above my head, the needle in my hand, the contrast fluid pumping into my blood while slowly moving through the large scanning machine, I know where I am. I am back in my coffin. These are my Osiris moments. And it is not upon me to decide whether or when I will be re-awakened.
All my teenage years I wondered what Eliphas Levi meant when he wrote to Baron Spedalari: Osiris is a black god. Now I know it. Every rite of rebirth requires many rites of dying. To cross the Abyss is a single act of magic. To accept its consequences in our lives is a looping spiral of events. Rewriting the code in our spiritual genes needs repeated carving. If we aspire to take an experience from one life to our next, it has to be repeated many times. Until it turns into a sensual pattern bound into our own blood. We don't change the knowledge of our HGA through reflection. We change it through our human senses. That is how s/he perceives us. Through every sensual experience we make. That's why the god we have asked to become is pressing down the needle hard if new knowledge is to be inked into us. So that it outlasts our dying.
Obviously these are the processes we won't find explained in the Greek Magical Papyri. Like every grimoire these text give us the bare bones, the recipes of preparation and the grammar of action. These rites provide instruction on how to unlock that secret room where we can sign a contract inaccessible to others. They do not tell us what will happen once the ink has dried. They offer up the chalice to us. They don't speak about the poison inside.
Here is what I think today with much of this in hindsight: All the magical tools, the robes and ritualia we craft over a lifetime - despite the true power and magic they hold - they fade away when it comes to matters of life and death. Once our heart rests on the scales of Maat our hands are empty and our soul naked. What will uphold us then is not a crown, a lamen, wand or sword. Instead it's all the things we spend much of our lives taking for granted. Friends who stick around despite who we are, fond memories, maybe a novel, a cup of coffee, morning sun.
I really don't mean to sound condescending. Maybe it's just a man speaking who normally is known to have too little empathy? But be careful, all my magical friends. We'll all be facing our own Osiris moments one day. Take good care of your families, your friends and loved ones, of the secret and public places that make you strong and resilient. We will need all of them. And badly so. We are all here to learn how to live life before dying. But it's madmen like us who also choose to learn how to die before dying.
P.S. Thanks also to Michael Sheppard for his outstanding blog on Egyptian mysteries. His work his highly recommend.