I have been doing a pretty good job at staying out of the kinds of intramural conflicts that Magicians and Pagans get up to fairly frequently. This was not always the case; I had to learn this lesson somehow, did I not (other than perhaps taking Bardon’s advice to heart …)? I have developed some pretty strong notions about behaviors to avoid (many of which can be deduced by perusing a list of logical fallacies, and the rest by reading Miss Manners). I slipped up recently, but it was at least instructive.
I didn’t know anything about Paul Hughes Barlow (“A Modern Magus,” according to his blog banner) when I followed a Tweeted link to his blog post “License to Depart.” His post generally takes ritual magicians to task for ignoring the spirits who are all around1, except when we go to great lengths to conjure them (and then license them to depart, which PHB considers silly, and I consider “easily misunderstood” and “silly if not used properly.”). It goes on to warn of the psychological dangers of this approach, and offer to help anyone who might have self-infested in this way.
I’m not saying “License to Depart” is without merit. Even just for me, the question of why I no longer work so much with spirits that are easier to contact is an interesting, and not simple question. One answer is that we tend to value achievements and possessions that cost more to obtain. It is also true that one has to maintain the relationships, and there’s a limit to how many one can have active at once.
On a second reading, I get the impression that there are some specific instances that provoked PHB to write about this particular topic at that time, which might soften the impact some. But since we don’t know this, we are invited to see what I initially saw:
- Ritual magicians have got everything all wrong. We all think the spirits we work with are “out there” in some ouranic or chthonic realm, and have to be ponderously summoned and pompously dismissed. This makes it easy for us to offend certain spirits.
- When we screw up and offend the spirits, we end up being infested by them, giving rise to a species of MPD or similar issues.
Point 2 makes me wonder what sort of people PHB hangs out with. I know there are dangers: I have known, or known of, a very few people who, at least temporarily, suffered derangements of that sort or who were scared off from magic by the threat of it. Since I have to count every case I have known since 1966 to come up with three, and since I don’t see nearly as many as one would expect in Internet and print sources, I have to figure this just isn’t as prevalent as PHB’s argument requires2. It might make a good research topic for someone, since it’s becoming (almost) respectable to get degrees in esoteric studies now. Even after acknowledging the understandable lack of hard data, it still looks like ritual magic is safer than LSD…3
Point 1 reminds me of the argument frequently leveled against polytheists (since at least the writing of the Biblical Jeremiah, and right up to the present day) that we don’t know any better than to worship man-made statues. Someone (citation required — I’ll try to find it) writing about ancient Mesopotamian religion dismissed the whole thing as naive idolatry because the priests would take certain statues down from their shelves, ritually bathe them, and parade them around on their festival days.
Anyone who knows about telesmatic processes can see right through that. Of course they knew the statue is not the God, just as I know my 23rd Lunar Mansion talisman is not the angel Raquiel, but an embodied memory of the contact between us. Such things need to be renewed, just as our memories sometimes need refreshing.
But enough of my idolatry-libel fixation for now, and back to the main point. Firstly, since many modern magicians psychologize some or all of the spirits they work with (whether explicitly following Crowley–who said the demons of the Goetia were parts of the brain–or not), the strawman loses an arm and a leg right away.
I personally still make a virtue of model-agnosticism. Archetypal constructs in the collective unconscious work just the same as spirits in another Sephira or subtle “plane,” and just the same as long-lived information clusters in the World Hologram, or whatever the Information Model actually says. I don’t know any definitive way to distinguish these cases, so I address the spirits as real entities with personalities and agency. I would probably get the best results by continuing to do this even if someone hooked me up to an Ecto-Scan 6200 and showed me exactly how I was creating them.
I used to say “It’s fine if you want to say that spirits are constructs in the Collective Unconscious or whatever; you’ve just agreed with me that the human mind is a vast and strange place,” before I heard Lon Milo Duquette cut to the chase with “It’s all in your head — you just don’t know how big your head is.”
I have yet to meet a contemporary ritual magician who believes that spirits are summoned from Heaven or Hell by their rituals and then have to travel back when licensed to do so, although I am willing to believe that some Medieval circle-scratchers thought something of the sort, because so many grimoires were written as if they did.
Even so, the License to Depart is not merely an empty formality. It may not be needed in all cases, and some versions could use a whole lot of toning down, but as a formal way of saying that one does not need or wish to stay connected all the time, it remains useful. Similarly, closing rituals are a way of carefully and reverently unwinding the heightened energy generated, as we mostly don’t know how to walk around lit up like that all the time without causing all sorts of chaos (if you don’t have a couple of good “I should have grounded better” stories, I suspect you of not trying hard enough).
From at least late antiquity to the 19th Century, many magicians made up for their lack of sensitivity by hiring scryers or seers, or borrowing a child (that would go really well today, wouldn’t it?). Thanks to Paschal Beverly Randolph, Franz Bardon, and those who have extended their work (I think I should be right in mentioning Poke Runyon, for instance), we now have ways to train our own minds so that there is less need for bumbling in the dark.
Accordingly, I now think of almost all of magical and mystical practice as a matter of tuning. People have some natural presets, perhaps, and can develop others. Some people find astral travel easy and natural, some people never had to learn to sense auras, others are attuned to dead people but not other spirits4, and so on. Ritual magic is not the only way to change one’s tuning, by a long shot. One can do it by purely contemplative means. Whether that has the same “range” as ritual magic is an open question (I have one answer, but it’s too digressive even for me).
For example, I do ritual invocations, usually consecrating or re-consecrating a talisman (I have described some here). I could probably dispense with a lot of the ritual elements and just plop an appropriate focus down on a table and chant the Name until I sensed Presence. I happen to be fond of my robes, my crystal balls, and the whole process of serving excellent incenses. Even before I got into Hermeticism, I was considered a High Episcopagan by many. This gives the ritual methods a slight advantage when it comes to affecting my consciousness, which is the main point anyway. I know plenty of people who feel otherwise; they do what works for them.
So, that’s why I initially saw “License to Depart” as a strawman argument and an exercise in making the author look good by putting other people down. I apologize for the 140-character bluntness of my initial reaction, and thank PHB for suggesting that I express it more fully, and I hope more collegially. I know I’m not going to convince PHB that his model or methods are wrong, since he has experiences that support them; just that it was not necessary to belittle the rest of us.
1. There’s a shorter exposition of this idea on his blog, titled “Summoning the Goetia from Hell?“
2. Am I selecting against the very sources that would confirm his point by turning away from the stench of madness they exude? Could be!
3. Gratuitous drug reference — humorous way of making a point, or search-engine fodder? Hmmmmm.
4. Ewwww. Better them than me. So far, all my dead-people contacts have been in dreams where they belong.