The Role of Myth in Ritual Magic - Part 1

"In all mythical action there is a moment, a true transubstantiation, a metaphormosis when the subject performing the action transforms into the god or demon which it represents." (Cassirer, p.51) 

Lately I have been asking myself: What’s the role that the myth played in ritual magic in ancient times? There is a stark contrast between the colorful myth of the Egyptians, the Greeks or even Chaldeans and our more recent tradition of Western Magic since the time of the late Gnostics. While the former is full of stories about relationships between humans and gods, between divine offsprings, their battle for freedom, their protection of the land as well as direct encounters of pleasures and threats of the spiritual world, we are faced with a strange silence and absence of such stories when surveying the latter. 

So assuming our ancestors had a point in putting the mythos center stage in their ritual actions, we might want to ask ourselves: Could it be that we lost a crucial element of ritual magic during the last two millenial? What exactly was the role mythos took in the magic of the ancients? And if anything, is there something it could give back to our current tradition of Western Magic - not only to make it more colorful, more true and living, but most importantly to make it more meaningful to ourselves and others?

It is from this angle that I will explore some of the aspects of the mythos in ritual magic. As always it's an expression of my own practical work and experience only. At some points I drew on additional literature I came across in preparing my rites - both in the Egyptian as well as in the classical Western paradigm of magic.

If you want to join me on this journey I am looking forward to hear about your own thoughts or questions on the subject. On a matter so unexplored, so forgotten in Western Magic I guess it will take a lot of good debate (and practice!) to rediscover all facets... 

Frater Acher

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1) The Mythos in Egyptian Magic

Let’s begin with the Outer Perspective: I guess we are all familiar with the idea of sympathetic magic? Even though Frazer’s definition of all magic as essentially sympathetic magic might be overly simplifying it is appropriate as far as Egyptian Magic is concerned. Through correspondence between similar qualities of beings, objects or ideas a connection could be established. This bound between the similar introduces the basic function of all practical magic as it allows the practitioner to manipulate the element out of reach by using the corresponding element at hands. The Egyptians called the power to establish and sustain these correspondences Heka; a term that they also used for the depiction of Magic in general.

“A belief in the creative power of words and images was central to Egyptian magic. The magician also strove to discern the true nature of beings and objects and the connections between them. These connections were created by shared properties such as colour, or the sound of a name. […] Once a pairing had been established, it was thought possible to transfer qualities from one component to the other, or to produce an effect on the one by actions performed to the other. Heka was the force that turned these connections into a kind of power network. It was through heka that an image or a name could be made to stand for the real thing, a part could stand for the whole, and symbolic actions could have effects in the real world.” (Pinch, p.16)

When it comes to the role of the mythos in Egyptian magical practice we find exactly the same approach: A recurring principle in Egyptian magic is to realize analogies between ordinary life crisis and similar divine experiences as passed on through the Egyptian myths. This way a transference from the human to the divine level granted higher meaning to an individual situation of misfortune by conceptualizing it as a reenactment of a mythological experience with the practitioner as the divine representative. Mythological Transference - as we may well call this process - therefore charged the personal situation with meaning as it created a concrete and individual relationship between the practitioner and the respective goddess or god in question. 

“The appeal of magic was twofold: it identified the cause of your troubles and it promised hope in even the most desperate situation. Magic was described by Malinowski as ritualized optimism.” (Pinch, p.17)

Recognizing the practical use of the myth in Egyptian magic is critical to understand its central position in Egyptian temple life and cult: Egyptian Magic was fully dependent on a living memory of Egyptian myth. Only through the living memory of a divine experience was it possible to transcend the day-to-day crisis and experience it as a personal version of the divine myth – differentiated by time and circumstances only. In this way it was the myth that provided the patterns to understand and often cope with everyday experiences (Cassirer, page 41).

Now, the above explains the relevance of myth in Egyptian ritual magic from an outer or sociological perspective. It illustrates why myth were woven into everyday cults and annual rites. And it explains how peasants and ordinary people outside the temples were enabled to form a bond between their personal lives and the realm of the divine.   

Yet the meaning of myth in Egyptian ritual magic goes much deeper. For every Outer there is also an Inner Perspective, providing balance and deeper understanding. Ernst Cassirer in his seminal work “The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Volume 2: Mythical Thought” was the first scholar who articulated what practicing magicians had known since ancient times: That ritual experience not only leverages but antedates the mythos.

“It has been emphasized with good reason that in the relation of mythos and ritus the ritus has been identified as the earlier and the mythos as the later element. Instead of explaining ritual actions as derived from contents of faith - largely imaginary in nature - we rather need to approach things the other way around: all elements of the mythos belonging to a theoretical imaginary world or perceived to be part of an ancient tale have to be understood as an indirect interpretation of what is experienced directly and as a living reality in the deeds, in the minds and emotions of human beings. It is in this sense that all rites are not of an allegorical or emulating sense but of a sense of pure reality. The rituals are woven into a living reality in such manner that they represent an essential component of it.” (Ernst Cassirer, translation Frater Acher)

Now, at this point you could ask: If ritual experience comes before the mythos why bother with myths at all? Why not stick to the rites themselves and drop all outer expressions, all stories formed from firsthand experiences at a later point - often to satisfy the needs of the masses to relate to the divine by some form of mythical cult?

I guess that’s pretty much the approach we have taken in Western Magic - at least judging from the absence of surviving myths in our current practice? Unfortunately it represents a huge misunderstanding. A misunderstanding so crucial that it explains much of the lifelessness, the emptiness and most importantly the short-livedness of most of our Western magic ritual practices today.

So here is the misunderstanding: Ritual experience may well antedate the mythos, yet, it doesn’t produce it. Deep ritual and visionary experiences can excavate myth, lying deep below the surface of our everyday experiences, strongly connected to the nature of the land and the beings dwelling above and below it. The myth is waiting for us to discover it; yet it is not created by us. In such practice priests and priestesses take the role of explorers, of midwives and dragomen - yet never of creators.

True living myth are not shadow memories of ritual or visionary experiences made once upon a time by ancient magicians or tribal heroes. They are not the cold seals left behind by divine signets, stamped into the fluid, warm wax of collective memories long ago. Instead true myth are living patterns that explain the very mode of existence and operation of specific spiritual beings. The myth are the stories the spirits are telling us so we can understand who they are, how they affect our lives, the life of the land and our society as a whole... The myth is the pattern through which spiritual forces start flowing once triggered on the inner realm and on their way to outer expression. 

To finish this first chapter let me make this plain simple: For an ancient Egyptian priest or priestess to commune with a god in ritual without putting the pattern of a specific myth in between themselves and the source of divine power would be like connecting a high-voltage power line to your average electrical home appliance. Due to the huge amount of power flowing from the divine force a strong and sustainable pattern was necessary that was both sympathetic to the intend of the magician as well as to the nature of the spirit in communion. The mission of this pattern was to provide clear direction for the forces evoked and to allow both sides to agree and understand whereto power had to flow and what it had to do... 

While magical seals, potions and herbs and barbaric words can unlock the gate to the spiritual realm, it is the interface of the mythos that provides direction to the forces set free - comprehensible both to the priest or priestess and the spirit in communion. The myth sets the agenda.

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Selected Resources

  • Cassirer, Ernst; Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Zweiter Teil: Das Mythische Denken, 1953 
  • Pinch, Geraldine; Magic in Ancient Egypt, The British Museum Press, 1994