Nick Farrell recently posted twelve indicators that might help you identify wether or not you actually are a magician. Now, I don’t know Nick personally, but I have followed his writings for a while. From what I found I came to genuinely respect him as a magician in the tradition of the Golden Dawn, a knowledgable teacher of his subjects and overall a pretty reasonable person.
It surprised me even more, therefore, to see such a naive list of criteria for supposedly true magicians on his blog? My initial reaction was disbelief of what could have driven him to post such a superficial set of filters? Maybe he spent too much time at one of the parties he referenced - surrounded by pentagram-tattooed wanna-be magicians and witches who all boast about their forthcoming occult publishing companies... I could see him sitting silently in a corner, grinding his teeth and slowly charging up with resentments - until he couldn't resist but stand up and shout out all the seemingly obvious things?
The trouble is, while I completely understand and relate to his feelings - if this was where he was coming from - I still firmly belief the list of criteria he shared is not only deeply flawed but also completely outlived. Let me share why.
Also, let me call out it is a pity Nick and I don't live in the same town. This would have made for a wonderful night out in the pub - a great dispute about the most meaningful question to all of us: Why do we do the stuff we do? And if we are any good at it - how can we help others to achieve the same?
So, Nick, should you read this and ever make it to Munich - please be my guest.
On the Problem of Magic and Authenticity
What Nick really seems to be concerned with, is that there are many people out there claiming to be something that they really aren't? For him it seems to be a question of authenticity. The word ‘authentic’ actually stems from the old French term ‘autentique’ which can be translated as ‘canonical’. ‘Canonical’ in turn stems from the Latin word ‘canonicus’ which means ‘according to rule’. This stroke me as very fitting in the context of Nick’s naive list: He seems to be looking for rules that determine when you are entitled to carrying a certain name badge and when you aren’t?
Unfortunately there is a problem with such an approach: Such types of rules may exist in (magical) orders or lodges for the passing on of grades and respective titles. Yet, simply because a group of people decides to accept these rules as fair and applicable for themselves, they aren’t universal. They remain true for as long as the group decides to act according to them. They are nothing but a social cipher - which is not to say that social ciphers cannot be powerful magical tools in their own right.
However, at the end of the day such a ‘rule-based’ approach to magic comes up against one of the essential challenges in life and especially in magic: Rules require authorities to release, maintain and if necessary to enforce them. In fact, that seems to be what Nick is trying to do with his post: grabbing the authority to reinforce a rule that he believes to be true and important, but violated by many people these days.
The difference, however, between a social rule and a law of physics is that the former is valid only within the boundaries of group that decided to accept it; on the other hand personal opinions don’t matter when dealing with laws of nature. Looking at the history of magic in the West, we come across a strange topos, a common pattern that seems to repeat itself over and over again. This many magicians' attitude to refuse many social rules of their times. It is the anti-social and often rebellious nature of being a magician. I posted about this recently when reflecting on Empathy and Magic. While I don’t believe it is necessary to show such a behavior to become a magician - whatever that term actually means - it seems to be a surprisingly common denominator of our magical ancestors.
The reason why I am referencing this anti-social aspect of many magicians is the following: In my eyes you set yourself up for failure trying to establish authority on the definition of who is and isn’t a magician - as the people who came to be known in this social category never really accepted anyones authority but their own. Appollonius of Tyana, Agrippa of Nettesheim, Paracelsus, hell, even Gregor A. Gregorius, Dion Fortune or Crowley - these people never followed anyone’s rules but their own. From what I know, they certainly didn’t seem to be looking for approval or name badges other people would hand over to them? I guess my point is: Name badges and true magic can look back at a pretty long love-and-hate relationship. The only way not to get caught up in this war of roses is to simply not care what other people think of you - and to get on with the actual work.
Dismantling a few Magical Stereotypes
Now, with this in mind let’s take a closer look at the actual criteria Nick has on offer for ‘true magicians’. Despite the fact that I personally believe any list of such indicators is doomed to fail, I am still gobsmacked what made him come up with some of the 12 filters he actually chose...
“1. You always wear black, have a pentagram, or an esoteric tattoo which can be seen. A real magician is someone you would think was an ordinary person. The Rosicrucians actually swore to wear the standard clothes of people around them. Dressing up is advertising “hey I am an occultist” for people who do not care. This can be extended to the idea of appearing all dark and mysterious and writing long tombs on Black Magic usually with a Crowley angle.”
Okay, I get it: if I want to get into the Rosicrucian camp I need to dress like an ordinary person. Fair enough; if this is one of the social ciphers these guys agreed upon, who am I to challenge them? However, personally I have seen many magicians do great magical work - while actually carrying a lot of magical tattoos, wearing black preferably and looking extremely strange...
Of course I would agree to Nick’s assumption that just wearing black and carrying a magical tattoo on display doesn’t make you a great master of the arte. But not doing this doesn’t make you any less good or bad at magic. It simply isn't a reliable criteria at all: What you wear, how much you spend on it, your personal choices of tattoos - they simply don’t matter. Spirits aren’t into fashion. Neither are they into retail therapy or battling for social attention. These are the games we play as humans on our own; they matter in psychology, they don’t matter in real magic.
“2. Each day you do not do at least half an hour’s PRACTICAL magical work. Practical work means doing a ritual, shutting your eyes and going somewhere, with full concentration. Sounds obvious but people call themselves magicians when they only have read a few books.”
This seems to be a case of a teacher trying to make something very complex very simple? Often this yields very blunt results, but it doesn’t mean they are true. Did Agrippa of Nettesheim actually practice 30min every day? Did the author of the Rosicrucian manifesto sit down to meditate every day for half an hour or more? I guess we will never know.
But we might be able to test this idea instead: The amount of practice you can and should take on each day, needs to be determined by the current states of your body and mind. Of course the problem for any beginner is that they have absolutely no connection to these two inner voices. Instead they are distracted by cravings and random thoughts and easily mistake these for the genuine voices of their body and mind...
To break through these walls of chatter forcing yourself into a routine of daily magical practice can be a really smart tool and approach. However, defaulting to such a rhythm of practice is a means to an end - often for a specific period of time - until you achieved the end in question. Then you let go and re-configure your approach. Personally it took me four years of daily practice to get to this point; maintaing a daily routine of practice after that would have been highly counter-productive to path I was on by that time...
Once you step over the threshold of deep inner work, extended rituals and gnostic ascent, the dynamics of your magical practice change completely. Staying absent from magic for longer periods of time will become just as important as diving back into them head on when the tides are right.
"3. Your life is the same. Practical magic results in dramatic changes to you and your environment. If you are doing it properly you will be completely different from what you were.”
On this one I completely agree. Happy days! But then - isn’ this true for any life lived by an adventurous spirit?
“4. You have not lost at least one relationship because of magic. It is hard to have lived a magical life and stayed with the same partner. If you are attached to a muggle they often do not understand your way of thinking, and if you are not then magical events can become “relationship events”. Although I didn’t believe it either, it is incredibly likely that a partner will say to you to choose between you and your magical work. If you chose the partnership you are not a magician.”
Now, here is an interesting one. Personally I have been through this; I happened to choose the partnership AND magic. To be honest, this point is so complex and deep it deserves for books to be written on it. The fact Nick doesn’t know better but to fall into the same trap so many generations have fallen into before him, is a sad thing to see. From my own experience I can share that much: Wether you can live in a happy and fulfilled relationship with a non-magical partner as a magician, heavily depends on three things.
- Do you follow stupid lists of rules that define wether you are entitled to wear the magician name badge or not?
- How good are you at using multiple languages and paradigms discretely to describe reality and
- What is the type of magic you are aiming to practice and for what reason?
If you don’t mind I’ll skip over the remaining points of Nick’s list. I guess by now it is pretty obvious why and how our perspectives differ on the matter...?
Well, just for fun maybe, let me dig into one more:
“9. You think that something else is important. Occultism is all consuming. It provides you with a way of life and method of thinking. There is no room for making something else more important than it. Politics is not important; neither are ideals, animal rights, Greenpeace or anything like that. A magician helps the world but through different methods. That does not mean that they will not get their hands dirty helping people directly. But the “idea” thing is dealt with a magical level, they do not sell their time to causes.”
My own take on this one would be: Whenever you encounter anything in your life that makes such absolute claims on your mind and personality - run as fast as you can! I can think of many things that are dear and important to me. The problem I see with Nick’s attitude on the subject is that he seems to propose to compartmentalise and silo aspects of your life: Here is bucket for all things magical, here is one for social endeavours, here is one for my personal relationship, here is one for my job, etc.
What magic - or shall I say life in general? - taught me over the last years especially is that on the most fundamental level it dislikes to be compartmentalised. Unfortunately in life as well as in real magic things tend to get messy, unpredictable; they blur and mix up, they intertwine and interdepend.
Someone once said: ‘Borders are a human invention.’ I often thought about this and wondered if I actually agree. In light of this particular filter on Nick’s list I couldn’t agree more: When you set out on your magical path, start with taking down all the walls that separate one aspect of your life from another. Do not build a temple (like I and many others did). Do not confine the realm of the spirits to a black mirror or a triangle on the floor. Instead learn to shut up, to become really silent, to confine all the voices inside yourself that talk to you about who you are and should be, about lists of things you need to do to wear a badge of a certain degree or hierarchy...
Learn to stop all the noise. Become a clean slate. That also means: become unbiased by previous generations' filters and social ciphers. Try to open up the tiny space we call ourselves in all four directions, like a dove-cot. Then sit in silence and see which beings come close. Don’t cling on to them. Allow them to come and go, pass through you as they wish. What you wear, with whom you are in a relationship, which party you will go to that night, wether you are also active in animal rights or not - all of this doesn’t matter in this moment.
Personally, the biggest challenge I experienced in magic is not to hold any expectations or any preconceived ideas about what might happen next. Unfortunately most often it is our own imagination that limits us.