How to Learn a New System (without Bias)
December 11, 2012 7 Comments
I didn’t expect to write a follow-up to the earlier post so soon, but a quick email exchange on a Hermetic magic mailing list got me thinking, and before long the thinking got me to ranting. Earlier, I mentioned that you shouldn’t go into one system of symbols expecting a one-to-one matching with another system, like matching geomantic figures to the Elder Futhark, without understanding how each system works internally. If all you have is the external image of something, you’re omitting the reasoning, rationale, logic, and foundations that give the symbols their meaning, and you end up corroding and misinterpreting the symbols to fit things into an ill-fitting correspondence. It’s just just trying to jam square pegs into round holes, but more like trying to jam oranges into a keyboard. You risk trying to match up radically different things unless you figure out what things do on their own.
Well, this email chain was discussing the substitution of one set of forces called upon in a ritual with those more amenable to someone’s own upbringing and pantheon. To be more specific, in the Trithemius ritual of conjuration, one calls on the Holy Trinity at several points in the ritual. This is largely because the dude who came up with the ritual was a Christian abbot who practiced Christian Hermetic magic in a predominantly Christian society using a Neoplatonic philosophy that also had a trinitarian aspect in its perception of divinity. It’s understandable that many people who aren’t raised Christian or who are pagan from birth or by choice don’t feel much of a connection with the Trinity or other similar Abrahamic ideas of divinity; even though I was raised loosely Jewish, I didn’t have much of a faith in God before actually beginning the Work, much less the other two-thirds of the Trinity that I call upon fairly frequently nowadays.
However, the first time I got my hands on the Trithemius ritual, I still did it by the book and called on the Trinity, on Christ, and so forth. And you know what? Despite not having a connection to the guys, despite not being Christian or being baptized or being a member of any Christian church, the ritual worked. The Trinity heard me out and helped me out, despite that I was just some quasi-theist bumbling around with old Renaissance texts, a wand, and a few candles. Heck, even after finding out about my role as a priest to Hermes and flirting with other deities here and there, I still think Jesus Christ is a pretty cool dude and call on his aid in many of my magic workings, along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. After all, I do work in the currents of a Christian-leaning Hermetic tradition of magic and philosophy where those forces are strong.
What the email chain was about was that this one person was a polytheist of a different sort and didn’t feel comfortable calling on the Trinity, saying that they had no connection to them whatsoever. (Whether this was by upbringing as pagan or by choice in willfully excluding themselves from the Trinity is unknown to me, but I digress.) They just wanted to know how they could get by doing the ritual how they wanted right off the bat without experimenting with the ritual as given to them. They wanted to know how they could make the ritual better without ever having done it. To take things to an absurd extreme, they wanted to just up and start off on their own tradition of magic when given only instructions in another that they were unwilling to accept wholly but willing to change however they wanted in order to make things look nicer for them. Without doing the ritual. Without seeing what happened when they called on those forces. Without considering what the changes might do. Without knowing how the ritual worked from the inside. Without actually knowing how the system worked internally.
See why I felt that a follow-up post was necessary? This is exactly what I’m talking about, and is about half of what Draja Mickaharic says in every one of his books on magic: don’t substitute until you’re a master in this shit, because you’re probably going to fuck shit up badly in doing so, even if only in your own understanding and spiritual growth.
This person had said that they saw no reason to use foreign pantheons in order to work their magic. Really? Hermeticism was started off by taking every single foreign pantheon there was back in the classical world and blending them together, calling on Moses, Jesus, Iao, Michael, Apollo, and Ra in the same breath. Cornelius Agrippa, Aleister Crowley, and Stephen Skinner have written correspondence tables that link just about every aspect of Western ceremonial magic to just about every aspect of just about every other system of magic, religion, philosophy, divination, and symbology (and, yes, usually knowing how those systems worked from the inside out before making those correspondences). It’s pretty much a given that all roads lead to Rome, that all spiritual paths lead to the Divine, that Truth is One but known by many names. Every system is different, and every system is like a set of tools; one might use one set of tools for one purpose but an entirely different set for another purpose, such as building a house versus building a computer.
Pantheons, philosophies, and the like operate much in the same way for a magician, who looks beyond loyalty to one system of thought and tries to make use of what they have available to figure out what can be done better and more efficaciously. Working with other systems and becoming familiar and friendly with them and their powers only increases the magician’s repertoire of skills and augments their toolbox so that they’re better equipped with actually doing magic when magic needs doing, sometimes by any means necessary with whomever is willing to listen. This doesn’t mean that you can’t work with one system you like, but be willing to explore and whore yourself out to magic like how magic whores itself out to the cosmos. If you try to shelter yourself, you only inhibit yourself. We all have our preferred ways of doing work, but without learning how other systems and symbols and powers work in the process, we neglect the rest of the cosmos outside our own sphere. It’s dangerous, especially when some rituals or techniques really can’t afford or allow substitutions just because “ew I have to call on that dude”.
The point of the Great Work is that it isn’t just a Hermetic thing, or a Christian thing, or a Mediterranean thing. It’s a divine thing. When you’re doing the Great Work, it doesn’t matter whether you’re monotheist, polytheist, henotheist, pantheist, panentheist, atheist, autotheist, or whatever. It doesn’t matter whether you speak Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Chinese, German, Kalaallisut, Lojban, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. The Great Work is the attempt to get back to the Infinite Light, the Eternal and Endless Source from which all these things came from. All these distinctions, classifications, and labels we draw and assign things to are ultimately nonexistent and false, but they’re useful tools at any level lower than the Divine Source in order to understand the things that materialized and separated from and into the Endless Light. When you get There and perform the Great Work, all these things fall away revealing the not-even-oneness but the Oneness that underlies all of reality. That takes work, though, and you need to get rid of your own biases and self-appointed labels before you can really begin to work towards this goal.