On Using an Oil Lamp

Not that long ago, one of my good friends and colleagues Ahmadi Riverwolf (who also founded Bones and Stars, the paranormal investigation and spiritual consulting group I’m in), gifted me with something rather nice and unique: an old fashioned terra cotta oil lamp.  Bless her heart, she didn’t know what it was for and had been using it as an incense burner for years.  She had been cleaning out her house one day and found this old thing, then decided to give it to me.  I practically came with excitement over it.

Once I got it and finished cleaning it out from the old incense remains, I decorated it a bit, writing on certain prayers and symbols and…well, kinda left it unused.  I mean, who the hell uses oil lamps anymore?  They’ve been out of vogue generally in the Western world since the eletrification of both urban and rural areas, and the really old style of oil lamp like this one is best known to be used in the antique and classical Mediterranean and Middle East.  I’ve never seen references to oil lamps being used outside of the Greek Magical Papyri, if that gives you any indication of how old these things are, but I know that lamps hold a special significance in many religious and spiritual communities beyond simply acting as a source of light or a spot of remembrance.  To that end, I did some research, experimented with the use of oil lamps, and now I find it to be an invaluable addition to my ritual toolset.  Here are some guidelines and suggestions I’ve found out and read on for using an oil lamp like this, both generally and for ritual use.

On the lamp:

  • There’s usually at least two holes on the lamp: one for the wick at the spout or nozzle of the lamp, and one on the main chamber to fill the oil.  Don’t get the two confused.
  • Some oil lamps can be suspended with chains.  Be careful when you suspend them that they’re held in a stable position, won’t be bumped into, and won’t set the ceiling or its support on fire.
  • When setting the lamp down on a surface, be sure that it’s heat-proof or has something to insulate the lamp.  Although the lamp itself shouldn’t get hot, try to use precautionary measures whenever you can.
  • Many traditional oil lamps from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East have religious designs on them, usually a Chi-Rho logogram or a Hebrew seven-branched menorah.  Pick one that suits your faith, or find one that has a generic design if you don’t want an overly religious lamp.
  • If you’re using an old lamp, make sure it’s clean by washing it with rock salt and rubbing alcohol, shaking the salt around inside.  Rinse well with clean water.
  • Newer lamps, such as those from the Victorian and 1900s, often have a glass chimney to keep the flame safe from wind as well as to keep it contained, as well as to collect soot.  Some chimneys are decorative and have shaded or frosted glass; try to use clear glass chimneys so you can see the flame clearly, if at all.  I recommend not using chimneys, personally, or lamps that use them.
  • Feel free to embellish and decorate your lamp!  Write spells, words of power, prayers, or characters of particular entities on the lamp using heat-safe paint or permanent marker.  I suggest the Orphic Hymn to Fire (Aither) in Greek, personally, but it’s up to you.
  • Many of these lamps are made of terra cotta or ceramic.  Be careful with them, since they can break fairly easily.  Bronze and metal lamps are more resistant to damage, but not by much.
  • Old oil lamps are meant to be low and shallow, not the long and large ones known from more recent centuries which use fast-moving oil.  Oil lamps with long, elaborately curved nozzles aren’t really meant to be used and are likely to be merely decorative.

On the wick:

  • Unless you have a wick holder that can be inserted into the lamp, just push the wick into the nozzle while twisting it.  It’ll go in easily enough either way, insert or no.
  • You don’t need fancy wicks from a craft store for the lamp; cotton balls work fine.  Most cotton balls are actually rolled up, so if you unroll them you get a large fluffy “sheet” of cotton.  Roll this between your hands into a thick strand of cotton.  You have a wick!  One large cotton ball can be rolled into a long enough strand to produce two wicks easily, maybe three if you’re being stingy.
  • For a brighter flame, soak the wicks in strong salt water thoroughly, then let dry.  The sodium makes the flame burn a brighter yellow.  Try experimenting with other mineral or metal salts to get the wick to burn different colors, such as green, red, blue, or white, but be careful of any noxious fumes these might produce.
  • Instead of using cotton balls, use low thread count natural fabric.  The plus of this is that you can write incantations or signs on the fabric which will burn with the lamp as the oil flows through it.
  • The purer and cleaner the wick, the less soot it’ll produce.  Try to use 100% clean cotton, linen, or hemp whenever possible, and never use synthetic fabrics.
  • Put the wick in before the oil, and let the wick sit in the oil for at least five minutes before burning.  The wick needs to soak up enough oil so that it can start burning the oil immediately instead of burning down the wick.
  • Clip the most burnt part of the wick off with scissors before igniting the oil lamp again.
  • If the wick is too long and too far away from the oil reservoir, it won’t be able to draw oil up fast enough to burn at the edge of the wick.  Be sure the wick is close enough to the nozzle spout to prevent overburn of the wick.

On the oil:

  • Be sure to not overfill the lamp with oil.  Fill the lamp until it’s between 3/4 and 5/6 full; you may need to test out proper measures by filling it up with water and seeing how much water you put in with a measuring glass.
  • You can use olive oil, vegetable oil, sesame oil, or even liquified ghee for the lamp if you want, but I prefer pure olive oil.  You don’t need to burn extra virgin olive oil unless you’re rich and insist on basically burning your money away.  Mineral oil might also be good to use (and is just about mandatory in Victorian era oil lamps), but olive oil is traditional.  Vegetable oil tends to smell bad and leaves residues that need to be cleaned out, but can be used in a pinch.
  • The purer the oil, the less soot it’ll produce.  Try to use clean oil whenever possible, and keep the flame away from walls or pictures so that soot doesn’t build up on them.  Unless, of course, you want to collect lampblack for making other things, which is totally doable and preferred from an oil lamp.
  • The purer the oil, the less residue it’ll produce on your walls and the room you use the lamp in.  A small amount of residue is unavoidable, but using cheap and dirty oil will leave a distinctly greasy feeling in the air and on the walls.  Either keep the windows open or expect to have to repaint the room in a few years when your rent is up.

On the flame:

  • Although the flame burns the oil, it also slowly burns away the wick, too.  Use tongs or tweezers to pull the wick up and down to manage both the size of the flame as well as how big the flame becomes; the more wick is out, the bigger the flame gets.
  • The smaller the flame is, the longer the fuel will last.  Big flames not only use more oil, but also burn more of the wick up.
  • The bigger the flame is, the faster it’ll produce soot.  Burn the wick at a low flame to prevent a notable trail of soot from rising from the flame.
  • Never leave an open flame unattended.  Obvi.
  • Keep the flame away from flammable substances and surfaces.  Duh.
  • When putting out the flame, use a candle snuffer or a clamp that can close around the burning part of the wick completely.  Do not blow the flame out, since this can blow parts of the wick away onto the surrounding area (which themselves might have enough oil in them to still be on fire).

On ritual use:

  • Before making use of the oil lamp in rituals, figure out how much oil you need to last for a certain amount of time.  Fill the lamp appropriately with a measured amount of oil, let the wick soak, light the wick, and adjust the flame to get a decent height, then time how long it takes for the oil to be used up completely.  Small amounts of oil are okay for short rituals, so long as as the wick is soaked in oil enough to be lit.  In my experience, a 1.5″ flame using 3 tablespoons of oil takes about three hours to burn up.
  • Most Renaissance magic calls for the use of candles and not oil lamps; consequently, I can’t find any Renaissance or Hermetic consecrations for an oil lamp or a flame burning upon one.  A Catholic blessing of fire might be used when lighting the lamp if you want to go a Christian devotional route.  For the more magically inclined, the conjuration of the fire from the Heptameron or the Trithemius conjuration ritual, both of which use variants of the conjuration of fire for incense from the Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 10), can be used as well if not better.  You might also adapt the consecration of candles from the Key of Solomon (book II, chapter 12) for consecrating the lamp itself as well as the oil and wick to be burned.  One of these days, I might experiment with writing up my own and sharing it.
  • Many parts of the PGM specify a lamp “that has not been colored red” (PGM I.262, inter alia).  This is because one of the colors of Set or Seth-Typhon is red, and many parts of the PGM didn’t particularly want to call on him through the use of his colors or symbols.  When painting a lamp, be sure to use only red ink or paint when working with this destructive god; otherwise, use black or any other color if possible.
  • For rituals, experiment by adding in magical oils into the fuel.  You don’t need much; if you normally use 2 tablespoons of olive oil, use 1 3/4 tablespoons olive oil and 1/4 tablespoon magical oil.  This can be useful for specific rituals, or you can just mix olive oil with holy oil and use that as a general consecrated light. Be careful when burning magical oils; not all magical oils are made from natural ingredients, and some oils may not burn well or may produce noxious fumes when burned.  Experiment outside first using a small amount of oil.
  • Although oil lamps are referenced throughout the PGM, few consecration rituals are described for one.  PGM I.262 says that the wick should be made of cotton and have the ABERAMENTHO formula written on it (ΑΒΕΡΑΜΕΝΘΩΟΥΘΛΕΡΘΕΞΑΝΑΞΕΘΡΕΛΘΥΟΩΘΕΝΕΜΑΡΕΒΑ) for the purposes of lamp divination with Apollo. PGM II.1 says that “a lump of frankincense” should be put into the wick of the lamp before going to bed for the purposes of a dream divination before saying a particular prayer; in the same section, the lamp should be set on a lampstand made from virgin oil with a bit of the oil poured onto the stand itself.  Other parts of the PGM say that the wick should be taken from the corpse of one who has died violently or be made of a particular type of reed.

One particular ritual involving an oil lamp from the Greek Magical Papyri is PGM VII.359, which induces a dream oracle or prophetic dreams.  One is to take a strip of clean linen and write on it ΑΡΜΙΟΥΘ ΛΑΙΛΑΜ ΧΩΟΥΧ ΑΡΣΕΝΟΦΡΗ ΦΡΗΥ ΦΘΑ ΑΡΧΕΝΤΕΧΘΑ (an Egyptian or Coptic phrase, no doubt, involving some sort of darkness or “khōūkh”).  Roll up the linen to make a wick, set it in a lamp, and light it with pure olive oil.  In the evening just before going to sleep, while “being pure in every respect”, light the lamp using the linen wick and say the following prayer:

ΣΑΧΜΟΥΝΕ ΠΑΗΜΑΛΙΓΟΤΗΡΗΗΝΧ, the one who shakes, who thunders, who has swallowed the serpent, surrounds the moon, and hour by hour raises the disk of the sun, ΧΘΕΘΩΝΙ is your name.  I ask you, lord of the gods, ΣΗΘ ΧΡΗΨ, reveal to me concerning the things I wish: …

Then go to sleep and you will be given answers in your dream.  The PGM is full of these types of rituals, including ones that involve Eros (PGM VII.478), Anubis (PGM VII.540), Hermes (PGM VII.664), and others.  Others, like PGM XXIIb.27, make use of repeating a particular incantation to a lamp until it is extinguished just before bed to get a yes or no answer in sleep; they ask for a particular image (“water and a grove”, “rivers and trees”, etc.) for an affirmative answer and another image (“water and a stone”, “fire and iron”, etc.) for a negative answer.  Some Demotic spells use lamp divination in conjunction with a virgin boy to act as a seer, while many other spells use lamps to constrain or compel someone to act in a particular manner.  Generally speaking, and with many exceptions, the use of a lamplight gave the power of one to see what cannot normally be seen, either by our own eyes in daylight or by our mind in the subconscious world of sleep; on occasion, the lamp was considered a connection to divine entities by which one could converse or cause to act and cause change in the world.

Personally, I’m switching out the use of consecrated candles for my rituals with the use of an oil lamp with consecrated oil for the same purpose.  In any given conjuration ritual, for instance, I might have several candles burning, but there will always be one specific candle that I consecrate to shine forth the light of the Infinite.  It’s that candle that I’d like to replace, since that’s the one candle I need at a minimum; everything else is decoration.  Plus, given the adjustability of the flame, I can get more light out of an oil lamp than I can a candle.  This is especially nice given the preponderance of biblical and Hermetic references to the use and symbolism of lamps; plus, the sheer use of an oil lamp gives a ritual a much different feel and charm that brings things closer to how the ancients did.  I use pure olive oil for the fuel mixed with a bit of holy oil for general rituals, though for small amounts I like to mix in vision oils or planetary oils in a clean lamp for rituals that could really use the kick.  If I ever start up a collection of oil lamps, I plan on using one just for conjuration rituals, and using another to burn for my ancestors with a specific oil blend burning as an eternal flame offering for them to elevate, pacify, and appease them; other oil lamps can be used for similar purposes with other spirits quite easily.

Given the affordability and availability of old-style oil lamps, both modern replicas and old-world antiquities, it’s not hard to get a good oil lamp for yourself in your own Work.  I strongly consider the use of them, especially given how easy they are to maintain.

The Role of Hermes in Mathetic Exploration

As might be evidenced by the ritual of self-initiation, one is basically making oneself into a student of Hermes in the study and exploration of mathesis.  In Greek, we might be calling ourselves οἱ μαθηταί τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ (hoi mathētai tou Hermou).  We’re basically taking him on as teacher, guide, if not even a patron for the purposes of exploring the Tetractys and, depending on how far we take this, the study and practice of theurgy generally.  This is a really big thing, and although it might be expected that Hermes should have a central role in mathesis, we’re getting really involved with him really fast.  We’re begging him to release us from darkness and ignorance and to lead us through to light and knowledge, taking us from the Agnosis Schema to the Gnosis Schema.  We’re bringing his influence and presence into our most personal and deepest of spheres and forging an intimate connection with him.  We are supplicating him and putting ourselves into his hands, putting all our trust in him.

Think about that.  We’re putting all our trust into Hermes.  Hermes is the trickster god of the Greeks, the one who steals, lies, and shits (literally) on the other gods.  We’re relying on him to keep us out of agnosis when he lies to the other gods and disguises himself so he can’t be seen.  Rather than asking “is this wise”, it might be more proper to ask “why the fuck are we trusting him?”

Caduceus

It’s not because Hermes is my own patron god and I’m trying to proselytize or prostitute him out to others (though it’s not like he wouldn’t mind).  Consider: the sphere of Mercury, Hermes’ sphaira, is in the center of the entire tetractys.  Mercury is the center of all the extreme sphairai (αἰ ἔσχαται σφαῖραι, hai eskhatai sphairai) and the middling sphairai (αἰ μέτριαι σφαῖραι, hai metriai sphairai), and connects to all the middling sphairai in a single locus.  Astrologically speaking, Mercury is the only planet without a sect; he is neither diurnal (with the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn) or nocturnal (with the Moon, Venus, and Mars), but is changed based on whether he’s occidental or oriental of the Sun.  Alchemical mercury is the mediating force between the pure action of Sulfur and the pure materiality of Salt.  Plato’s Timaeus has the third principle of Existence mediating between the two principles of Sameness and Difference.  Mercury is, all at once, a distillation of complementary forces (Light and Dark) as well as a source (Air and Water), and Mercury is the mediation between opposing forces (Salt and Sulfur, Light and Water, Dark and Air).  Mercury is as much “being between” as much as it is “being transformed”.

Indeed, it’s because of Hermes’s role as neutral and shifty guide that Hermes will not accompany us within the sphairai themselves.  He waits outside the gates of each sphairai, just right outside the threshold, and once we cross that threshold from the sphairai to the paths, the οδοι (odoi), we’re back in his hands.  He leads us up and down the paths, always flitting between and among the sphairai but never entering them.  Hermes is the guide; in a sense, he is the god of the roads and he is the roads, but roads are only ever between destinations.  Once we reach our destination, however temporary, we’re off the road and out of his hands.  However long we remain at our station, we are not traveling.  Hermes will accompany us for as long as we need to travel the paths, but he will never accompany us beyond the gates of where we’re going.  The road is between destinations, and words are between people and meanings; Hermes is the interpreter and transformer, but never the one that is interpreted or transformed.  He is the messenger, but we are the message.  The message depends on the messenger to deliver it from its source to its destination, just as the sender and receiver rely on the messenger, too.  We are the thing to be interpreted, transformed, delivered, guided, led.

That said, when you’re not part of any one realm of existence and are capable of flitting to and fro between them, it’s not hard to make the trip from “casual tourist” to “curious thief”.  Hermes, after all, is the divine thief who stole Apollo’s cattle literally right out of the crib.  One possibility that I’ve yet to explore is what might be called the “lost in translation” issue.  Consider: if we’re messages being delivered, or words being translated, something is going to have to change between point A and point B, the sphaira from which and the sphaira to which we proceed.  What is it that changes?  When we speak to one another, the message usually gets across pretty clear, although some nuances I intend to communicate might be lost and some nuances I never spoke get substituted instead.  Sometimes the entire word is wrong, sometimes the entire message, and there needs to be backtrack to make sure everything makes sense.  This isn’t necessarily the fault of either speaker or listener, or for that matter the two sphairai between which we travel, but the choice of the message itself.  Every message is different; some messages are worded better, some are intended for specific ears, and so forth.  When Hermes leads us to a new sphaira, he becomes a cross between a guide on a highway and a highwayman, taking something from us.  Whether it’s an aggregation that makes us human or bound to this world, or whether it’s simply borrowing something from us and rearranging us, or a toll we have to pay or sacrifice is unknown to me just yet; I’m not even sure whether anything needs to be taken, but it might make sense given his mythology.

Which leads me to another aspect of Hermes that I haven’t been too familiar with, that of Knife-holder and Argos-slayer.  Hermes himself, when I was going over the ritual with him, liked the ritual in large parts but wanted something added.  I had difficulty understanding why; after some thinking and discussing with him, he said that “there is no initiation without cutting”.  A blade of some sort, then, is necessary; as for why, I recalled that “of the golden knife” is one of the epithets of Hermes but I didn’t know the story why.  That story is the slaying of Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant and favored servant of Hera, set to watch over Io when she was transformed into a cow by Zeus (Metamorphoses, Book I, chapter 8):

The head of Argus (as with stars the skies)
Was compass’d round, and wore an hundred eyes.
But two by turns their lids in slumber steep;
The rest on duty still their station keep;
Nor cou’d the total constellation sleep.
Thus, ever present, to his eyes, and mind,
His charge was still before him, tho’ behind…

Now Jove no longer cou’d her suff’rings bear;
But call’d in haste his airy messenger,
The son of Maia, with severe decree
To kill the keeper, and to set her free.
With all his harness soon the God was sped,
His flying hat was fastned on his head,
Wings on his heels were hung, and in his hand
He holds the vertue of the snaky wand.
The liquid air his moving pinions wound,
And, in the moment, shoot him on the ground.
Before he came in sight, the crafty God
His wings dismiss’d, but still retain’d his rod:
That sleep-procuring wand wise Hermes took,
But made it seem to sight a sherpherd’s hook.
With this, he did a herd of goats controul;
Which by the way he met, and slily stole.
Clad like a country swain, he pip’d, and sung;
And playing, drove his jolly troop along…

Hermes eventually lured Argos to sleep after singing to him and telling him enough stories, at which point Hermes kills Argos with his golden knife.  In this way, the watcher of Io was taken care of, and Hermes led Io out of this danger though some might say out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Argos with his many eyes (some sources say 100 or 10², some say 4, where the numbers should strike you as portentous for all this) keeps an eye on and guards Io, keeping her from being free, although it is the will of Zeus that she be freed so she can accomplish great things, including being an ancestress of Herakles.  Of course, the ghost of Argos also chases after Io once she’s freed, pursuing her as far as Egypt around the Mediterranean.  Only then is Io transformed back into a human.

We can see something of ourselves in this story.  While trapped in the Agnosis Schema, we are unaware of our true nature to some extent and are trapped by the forces around us; we cannot be free as long as we are trapped.  We have things to do, and even the gods want us freed…or, at least some of them.  But there are bigger problems than simply being stuck in our weird form; there are things watching over us, wanting us to stay where we are and doing their level best to keep us there.  Argos might be considered an archonic figure for us, watching over us with his many eyes, understanding and being of the nature of the Tetractys (10² or 4 eyes) though operating solidly within it.  For as long as we’re trapped in Agnosis, we cannot reach Gnosis.  The gods must send Hermes to us, and we must seek his help, in order for this archon-guard to be slain so that we can be free and follow Hermes to our salvation.  Thus, the knife: the knife is to cut the darkness, freeing ourselves from the hold it has upon us.  With the knife of gold we set ourselves free with the help of Hermes, but the knife’s use doesn’t end there.  After all, Argos’ shade pursued Io; even in death, the spirit of the archon will still try to bring us back to Agnosis, luring us off the path of Gnosis at any given stage.  As long as we’re staying stationary in the sphairai of the Tetractys, we are at risk; we can take temporary shelter, but if we stay too long then Argos catches up and takes us back to our prison.  During our travels on the odoi, we are fleeing in ways that Argos cannot follow, but we cannot live or stay on an individual path.

All this leads me to one last thing: if there are days sacred to Hermes, and Hermes is sacred in mathesis, is there a day sacred in mathesis?  After all, we decided that the ritual of self-initiation should be held on the first day of the lunar month, so why not consider it?  In my lunar grammatomantic calendar, Hermes is given to the letter Zeta, so the seventh day of the month is sacred to Hermes in this practice.  Traditionally, however, Hermes was given the fourth day of the month in the Attic calendar for monthly observances, and the Homeric Hymn has his birthday as the fourth day of the tenth month of the lunar year, starting with the first new moon after the summer solstice.  The fourth day of the tenth month.  Four and ten.  The Decad represented by the Tetractys.  Cute, innit?  This day is Hermes’ birthday, the day into which our guide was born to bring joy and power among the gods and the worlds, and is therefore fitting for us to honor.  Perhaps, in the future, initiation rituals should be timed to this date or around the yearly Hermaia, or similar observances held to honor this trickster god in this Hermetic system.

So, all this is just some extrapolation from mythology and basic understanding of Hermes on the paths.  It’s not so much that we should be trusting the tricky little fucker, but that we don’t really have a choice; the tricks he plays on us are as much as part of the journey as is traveling down the odoi themselves.  The Work must be done, and there’s so much more to find out.  We can make the jump from Agnosis to Gnosis; now we need to figure out what’s going on with the sphairai.  The first one we’re brought to is that of Mercury, which is one we’ll be visiting the most, and it’s the sphere most closely associated with Hermes.  But if Hermes does not enter into any sphere, what kind of nature does this sphaira have?  What can we find out and learn about these sphairai and how they relate to the other aspects of the Tetractys, to mathesis, to magic, and to the world generally?  Let’s find out, shall we?

In case you missed it, I was live on the air last night!

I apologize to my readers for not having given you warning on the blog, but last night I went on the air for the first time on Candelo’s Corner (podcast list here).  Candelo’s Corner is a radio show hosted by Candelo Kimbisa and Malik Kimbiza, two elders of the Palo Kimbisa Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, a Cuban-Congo ATR.  Apparently, the release of my recent ebook Vademecum Cypriani caught Candelo’s eye, and so he wanted to bring me onto the show.  We jammed for a bit about what I do as a Hermetic magician, as a Cyprianista, and as a reader, and I gave a handful of readings to people who called in, including Candelo and Malik themselves!  And yes, I was just as surprised as them when my readings hit the spot, apparently, and I even got embarrassed by my godmother who decided to call in and torture me with her praise.

I only got details for the link and time, like, a few hours beforehand even though we had planned it, so I did kinda sorta spam my Twitter and Facebook with the link, but forgot to update my blog.  If you want to listen in, have a listen of the show courtesy of Blog Talk Radio.  You’ll get to hear my delectable voice give readings, and even (at one point) pontificate about my style of delivery.  Listen in, and keep listening to Candelo’s future shows!

Oh, and yes.  Nsala malecu.

On the Mathetic Rule of Observance

I mentioned in the ritual of self-initiation that one should carry out the 10 days of ritual, plus the day immediately preceding these, by observing a type of fasting and behavioral restrictions.  I call this the Mathetic Rule of Observance, which consists of six rules to restrict one’s actions and intake of food during mathetic rituals.  They’re based on Pythagorean and other spiritual practices; although the rules can be added onto and be made more strict or modified in special cases to accommodate certain situations, the minimum rules to follow are six in number:

  1. No harm to any being.
  2. No sexual activity.
  3. No lying or speaking ill of anything or anyone.
  4. No consumption of meat or beans.
  5. No intake of stimulants.
  6. Wine may be drunk in moderation.

Essentially, these are rules to help with rules of purity for rituals.  Many magical traditions and rituals have their own rules of purity, usually stopping at “fast from everything for at least half a day” or “no sexual activity for three days” for a certain period of time; other spiritual traditions and paths, like Buddhism, have precepts that one should follow to prevent oneself from committing impure actions that’d come back to bite them in the ass afterward.  I often don’t make use of these restrictions, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to try out more in my own work.  Generally, unless it’s mandatory I do so, I simply try not to eat, have sex, or masturbate for at least an hour before ritual, but there are exceptions, and I want to make mathetic exploration and ritual such an exception.

So why purity?  There’s a lot of confusion around purity, and many rituals have no need for it at all; some tantric, ecstatic, or LHP traditions almost necessitate the use of indulgence in many ways, if not outright amorality and antinomia.  This even applies to some ancient Mediterranean traditions, especially those honoring Bacchus, Orpheus, and other ecstatic mystery cults.  That’s less the case, however, for Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism, which were focused more on controlling the body to better free the spirit within.  By keeping the body operational and focusing on it just so that it can survive healthily, keeping it satiated without indulging it, one can better focus on elevating the spirit and ascending to the higher realms in a way both easier and worthier of the objects of adoration and exploration, like the Good, the Monad, or what have you.  Plus, keeping rules of purity like this can prevent the body, soul, spirit, and mind from being contaminated by things that would continue to bring them down.

Pythagoreanism had a litany of rules one had to follow in order to remain in the Pythagorean community, the rules for which far surpasses most non-monastic rules of asceticism I’ve ever seen.  Some of them were pretty big: strict vegetarianism, wearing white clothes, and the like.  Others were trivial and detailed, like:

  • Do not touch a white cock.
  • Do not pick up what has fallen.
  • Do not cut fire with a sword.
  • Do not look in a mirror beside a light.
  • Do not step over a yoke.

Some philosophers have explained these rules as being strictly metaphorical; for instance, one rule says “do not eat the heart”, which would literally mean not to eat the heart of any creature (which would have been redundant, considering one’s vow of vegetarianism), but is sometimes explained as not to be consumed by envy or malice, but to share with others sympathy and love.  That kind of thing, you know?  Many of the rules were likely intended to have a double meaning, such as “decline walking in the public ways, and walk in unfrequented paths”; it’d be hard, especially if one is to live a life free from violence and worldly concern, to maintain that kind of mindset when walking in large public byways with the chaos and bustle of towns going on around you; likewise, it’s hard to focus on the philosophical and eternal truth of the cosmos when you’re stuck thinking about the things everyone else thinks about.  I mean, as magicians, how many times have we rolled our eyes seeing the trash that’s being hawked on magazine counters and at the aisles of supermarkets about the latest celebrity’s latest breakup with their latest husband, especially after we just do a ritual pondering the powers of the stars or elements?

While one can have as many extra rules and restrictions one would like, the minimum rules I’m establishing for mathetic practice are six.  Each one is important, and each has profound effects on the body and spirit alike to help one with ritual.  While these are definitely more Apollonian than Dionysian, and while I fully recognize and respect the need for balance between the two, the system of mathesis as a whole leans more towards the former than the latter.  To that end, here’re some short explanations why each rule is in the Mathetic Rule of Observance.

  1. No harm to any being.  This pretty much goes without saying.  Everything in the cosmos is born for a purpose, and everything in the cosmos has a bit of the divine within them.  Yes, fighting happens, and sometimes war is inevitable; conflict is a part of the world.  However, unless one is a soldier (in which case, on active duty, one probably doesn’t have much time for deep philosophical and theurgic works generally), it helps to refrain from causing harm to others.  Causing harm can lead to one being caused harm, not to mention that causing harm can distract one from a holy purpose and disrupt their thoughts and internal balance, which only sets one back.  If conflict is inevitable, there is almost always a way to resolve it without causing harm; aikido is something that focuses on this.  Yes, joint locks and throws are a thing, but this method of martial arts focuses on ending fights without causing harm.  For people of a philosophical and theurgic mindset generally, chances are that fighting is not on the day-to-day to-do list.  Besides, not all harm is physical; emotional and spiritual harm can also be exacted upon others, such as through manipulation, guilt tripping, deception, cursework, or having others do harm on your behalf.  All of that should be refrained from as much as possible.
  2. No sexual activity.  Honestly, I do not consider sex to be an inhibitor in and of itself to spiritual practice; nor, for that matter, did Pythagoras, though he too had some restrictions on it.  I personally find sex to scratch a really good itch, and I know many people use sex for magical purposes.  However, mathesis isn’t that kind of magic, and if we want to ascend spiritually, then denying the body this is a better thing than not.  By denying the body sex, we build up more power inside and prevent ourselves from getting distracted by worldly needs.  Sexual power, when contained, is fantastic to reroute and use for some powerful experiences, and by using it in sex (especially for procreation or mere enjoyment), we use it and get rid of that power for another purpose and cannot reclaim it.  Emissions from sex are on the same level as that of spit or blood; they’re not impure or waste products of the body, but they belong to the body and not to the spirit.  Let the body be empowered through sexual denial, and it can be repurposed for the spirit in mathesis.  Besides, sex with others during a mathetic ritual can potentially contaminate the body from the other person, which would then spiritually inhibit you from a purer working style.
  3. No lying or speaking ill of anything or anyone.  In some ways, this is a clarification of rule #1, no harm to any being.  While rule #1 focuses on physical and emotional harm, this rule focuses on logical and communicative harm.  By misleading others, we encourage falsity and deception in the world, and when we’re focused on trying to better ourselves with the power of truth, we end up undoing the work for others that we’re trying to do for ourselves.  Add to it, by speaking ill against others, we engage in “walking in the public ways”, getting involved with gossip, rumors, and other sundry matters that we have no business engaging in, especially when the less we’re involved generally, the better.  Lying, by the way, includes all forms of exaggeration and diminution: boasting pridefully about one’s accomplishments or modestly trying to conceal them are both negative things to do that would break this rule.  After all, humility is not modesty; being modest is to diminish yourself (reverse exaggeration), while humility is saying things as they are without embellishment.
  4. No consumption of meat or beans.  Our bodies need to survive for as long as we live in this world; without our bodies, we cannot live.  It’s that simple.  To live, we need to eat.  It’s that simple.  However, we are what we eat, and if we kill animals to feed ourselves, we become more animal than human and require death to live.  While I love me a bacon cheeseburger or a KFC Double Down sandwich, for the purposes of mathesis, we want to avoid anything that would harm the transmigration of souls.  If we kill something to eat, we kill the life of a body with a soul in it, and since we could very well be the next soul to inhabit a cow for slaughter, we probably don’t want to be eaten when we would rather live instead.  Likewise, for a similar reason, Pythagoras taught that beans should never be eaten or touched, and even walking through a field of beans was taboo.  This is due to the appearance of the bean to resemble a human body: Pythagoras taught (probably) that beans and humans shared the same source or material, so to eat a bean was akin to eating human.  Add to it, beans contained the souls of the dead, and to this day bean dishes are usually called for in most funerary rites across the world.  To be surrounded by souls of the dead is counter to our goal of attaining a soul of life in imperishable truth.  From a more practical standpoint, meat and beans are exceptionally heavy foods that weigh down the body and soul alike.  For deeper spiritual practice, we need to have the body be sated enough without becoming heavy and world-bound.
  5. No intake of stimulants.  That’s right: abstinence, as far as possible, from caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and any kind of stimulant.  For caffiends like me who complain about there being too much blood in my caffeine system, this rule is pretty much the worst possible punishment, but there’s a point to it.  By stimulating the body chemically, we try to pull as much energy out of it artificially as we can, and that only temporarily.  Oftentimes, while a good jolt might be just what the doctor ordered, overreliance on them is extraordinarily common.  Further, by getting the body overpowered, it can also dominate the faculties of the mind; rather than having the body heavy with food into lethargy, it gets heavy with heat into physical action.  Both inhibit the spirit from working properly within the body; add to it, the spirit can best function off the body’s natural energy without having it altered through chemical stimulants.  Besides, if I can go a few days without energy drinks and cigarettes for an initiation, you can, too.  That said, Hermes is definitely a god of stimulants, so this is probably the least important of these rules, especially considering the late-to-bed and early-to-rise nature of the ritual.
  6. Wine may be drunk in moderation.  Just as stimulants can be damaging to the natural flow and processes of the body, intoxication can do the same in reverse.  Any drug, drink, or substance that dulls the senses is as damaging to those that oversharpen them or demand more out of them than one could normally provide.  Wine, however, is a staple of ritual, and is important in many Hellenic and Mediterranean rituals; it’s infeasible to except wine from this, only because it has its uses.  Yes, it can dull the senses, but it can also soothe one into relaxation.  Further, it is proper to offer and share wine with the gods and among ourselves, both as sacrifice and as a gift.  Thus, wine may be drunk, but only in moderation; it should not be consumed to get drunk.  When drinking, alternate glasses of wine with twice as much water, and neither drink too quickly nor greedily when you do so.  Moreover, this rule exhorts one to moderation generally: extending this rule, we can say that one should eat only enough to be sated but never full, sleep enough to be rested but never lethargic, and internet enough to be informed but never distracted.

Now that the rules have been explained, I’m not limiting the Mathetic Rule to just these six rules.  You can add on whatever you wish

  • Do not wear black clothing.  This would be difficult for me, but I can pull it off all the same through a judicious use of my wardrobe.  However, consider the color black.  We see things as particular colors because light reflects off them in a particular way based on what light is absorbed by the material; things that appear red absorb light that is not red, for instance.  Things that appear white reflect all colors at once, absorbing nothing; white is a symbol of not only purity but of purification.  Black, on the other hand, absorbs all colors; it takes in all things and holds them there.  Black does not reflect, but sticks to things.  When in mathetic practice, wearing black should be avoided generally, since it absorbs things like negativity and filth and holds onto them, causing them to better contaminate you.  After all, you can’t generally see the stains on your clothes when you’re wearing black, and you have no idea how filthy you get until you finally take them off.
  • Do not eat root vegetables.  This is an extension of two major rules above, not eating beans and not causing harm.  Beans bear a specific resemblance, according to Pythagoras, to human beings and the potential for life itself, especially due to their growth in the ground where the dead live underneath.   However, this rule is an influence from Buddhist monastic restrictions, where one cannot dig holes.  This is because animals, even insects and small creatures, live in the earth, and by digging holes for planting or for setting posts or beams, one risks injuring and killing them.  Digging up root vegetables to eat not only risks killing the plant, but also all insects around the dirt and soil where the plant is buried.  Further, the ground is where we put our dead; it is, quite literally, dirty.  Root vegetables are tied to the earth, and by eating the earth we keep ourselves earthy.  This is less than helpful if we want to ascend and rise up out of our world.
  • Do not eat cooked food.  This is an extreme dietary restriction, seeing how much of our food needs to be cooked either thermically or chemically, in order to be safe and edible.  Mind you, this includes cooking by heat as well as by chemical application.  In other words, one can only eat fresh fruits and vegetables; cooked grains, stews, and even processed sugars cannot be eaten with this rule.  By eating only fresh, live vegetables, you inculcate a desire for life within you and subsist on only that which helps keep the body satisfied without bringing it down in any way.  The only more extreme dietary restriction I can think of is to simply fast from all food entirely, but that’s often not helpful, either.  In fact, I think this rule should only be done for a maximum of ten days unless you can specifically train yourself to subsist healthily on this, especially with the restrictions on meat and beans or (perhaps) all root vegetables.
  • Do not steal.  I think this goes without saying.  Don’t take what’s not yours, since that can bring harm to others and cause harm to yourself, spiritually or physically.  Besides, without something being officially yours, you don’t know where it came from, what kind of contagion it might have, or whether you need it.  Indulging one’s avarice and greed is not something good for mathetic practice.
  • Do not accept things directly handed to you.  This rule is from Santeria practice of the so-called “iyawo year”.  When Santeros make ocha, or are accepted into the priesthood, they must undergo a year of initiation where they can only wear white and have a number of restrictions placed upon them.  This one means that you cannot accept things that are directly handed to you; they must be placed down before you can pick it up.  (There are exceptions, of course, but those don’t have to apply here.)  If you’re trying to remain pure, then you need to keep away from impurity.  If other people are impure, they can give you their impurity and contaminate you.  Passing you something is a way to transmit that contagion by means of the object being passed over.  This can make shopping exceptionally awkward, admittedly, but this is just an example of what kinds of practices you can add on to enforce and encourage purity.
  • Do not be completely in the dark.  This is based on some rules of ceremonial magic where one should never pray in the dark, but always with a fire or light present; the Pythagoreans themselves had a similar rule involving their mysteries.  Light encourages truth, while darkness conceals it; further, in darkness, you never know whether there’s someone around you to harm you or eavesdrop.  If you want to remain in the light, then you need to always remain in the light; never be in a completely darkened room or space.  Always carry a light or candle with you, sleep with a candle or nightlight on, and similar acts can be done to ensure that there’s always some light around you.

So, what happens if we break one of these rules?  Does that invalidate our efforts or negate the power of the ritual?  It can, but it doesn’t have to.  These rules of observance are only intended to encourage one to focus on spiritual work; they’re precepts, not obligations or commandments, and are meant as a rough guide to help us manage our physical actions while we attempt some really powerful spiritual actions.  Should we break a rule, go back and admit your fault to anyone who was affected by it, and offer to help clarify or fix any problems that result from them.  Otherwise, if nobody external to ourselves was affected by our fault, accept what you did and move on.  Dwelling on our “transgressions” is potentially worse than having committed them in the first place; we did what we did, it’s in the past, accept it, and don’t let it happen again.  Fearing what we may have done affecting us negatively in the future distracts us from the work at hand.  There’s no prescribed ritual or prayer to forgive or confess breaking any of the rules above; if you want to, admit fault in your private prayers, either to some savior god or to Hermes or whatever, and ask for help and guidance to keep you from doing it again.

What about exceptions to the rules?  No set of rules is one-size-fits-all unless it’s a set of universally applicable platitudes that don’t actually say much.  For instance, consider the no stimulants rule.  Some medication for conditions like ADHD are by their nature stimulants, and allow people to focus better in a way that is constructive to spiritual activity, even actually sleep properly.  Some people require animal protein in order to digest other foods properly, though these are a very small minority of people.  The overall meta-rule here is that, as much as you can, you should stick to these minimum rules as best as you feasibly can given your circumstances and situation; the more you can stick to them, especially if you can stick to all of them, the better.  If you can’t stick to one rule for a necessary reason, find a new rule similar enough to substitute it with.  For instance, if you require stimulants in order to maintain regular mental functions, try a “no refined sugar” rule instead.  If you’re required to work in a field where harm is a very high possible outcome, minimize it as much as you can and substitute it with “no idle talk”.  Other rules, however, are pretty much universal: don’t lie, don’t exaggerate, don’t diminish, don’t condemn, don’t indulge.

Again, this Rule isn’t a set of commandments.  There’s no community to shun you, no authority to excommunicate you (at least, not yet).  They’re there to help you in the spiritual work, not to establish a set of negative commandments (“thou shalt not”) to prevent you from living or exploring the work.  Given the focus of mathesis, it helps to restrain the body so as to let the spirit soar, but if you can successfully balance a physical and spiritual life while striving for the spiritual, then chances are you already live by a sufficient set of rules on your own without having to adopt these.