Work, Lineage, and Auturgy

I’m going through an interesting development in my life, pursuant to the awesome life choices I made back in October.  It’s the cause for several sets of changes, some of which are more immediately felt than others, some of which are more mental or intellectual than others.  One of those intellectual realizations I’ve made is how stark the difference is between different kinds of Work based on how one obtains access to it, and I think it bears discussing how that plays out within one’s own practice.

For most of my magical practice, I’ve largely worked on my own, sometimes with one or two other people, but it’s largely been an independent process.  I’ve made my own tools and consecrated them, I built my own temple, I learned my prayers and rituals and made up my own in the process, and I’ve built up my own body of knowledge, wisdom, and expertise.  I’m not saying I did this fully on my own; I proudly claim Fr. Rufus Opus as my instructor and mentor, but that’s all he is: an instructor, one who instructs.  He passed nothing onto me that I could not have obtained elsewhere, but he taught me where to look and offered guidance, tips, and advice of the process that he explicitly claims is a series of self-initiations into the spheres of the elements, the planets, and the Self.  No matter how much instruction or mentorship he provides, it doesn’t change the fact that all the Work to be done must be done, developed, and built by one’s own self.  It’s been a long road and highly educational, and extraordinarily worth it to build up your own Power and maintain it for your own ends.

And yet, that’s far from the only way to operate.  Just because that’s one method of Work doesn’t mean that it’s the only kind of Work out there, and the other is a matter of initiation into a lineage.  Consider that, in October, I was initiated by my godparent into a religion that spans centuries across several continents.  I was initiated by my godfather, who was initiated by his godmother, she by her godmother, she by her godfather, and so forth on many more times back to a time when we forget names.  In the duration from the first godparent we all share in common to my own initiation, prayers and songs and protocols have been developed as a type of pact with our divinities, and all the power that my godfather has was shared and passed along to me; what applies to him in the religion largely applies to me, as well, and I follow the precepts and protocols of this religion to obtain the same benefits.  They pre-existed my own initiation, and my initiation is a pact I make with our divinities that I can rely on this huge body of Work that was already done so long as I accept the terms and conditions.  I’m free to build up more power and pacts on my own, of course, but I pass down what was passed onto me, and as a result, keep the lineage going.  I don’t need to independently develop these pacts or these powers or these protocols; all I had to do was accept them.  The Work was done before my time, and now I participate in that same Work of the lineage.

It’s because of this distinction that I want to make explicit a difference between lineaged Work and what I call “αυτουργια” (“auturgy” in a modern spelling), or self-driven, self-sustained, self-begun Work that is without lineage and independent of it.  Most Western Hermetic work nowadays is auturgic in nature; we learn from books with nobody to initiate ourselves and little pre-existing power or pacts to rely on, and instead we must forge our own tools, protocols, and power to accomplish our Work.  Sure, we rely on the work done by our forebears, but they’re only passing on their instructions to us.  They do not hand us power or have their pacts take effect over ourselves, and many of the pacts they made with their spirits do not necessarily work for us the same way; we must make new pacts in the process of our auturgic Work.  This is starkly different from lineaged Work, where such power is already in place, and all you need to do is be given license to interact with it.

To make the distinction clear, take for example a particular tool you might use in ritual, say a crystal shewstone or the very area itself used in the Trithemian conjuration ritual.  The Trithemian ritual does not prescribe a consecration for either of these things to be done ahead of time, as might be done for some of the tools in the Key of Solomon; rather, they are consecrated in the ritual itself for the purposes of that specific instance of the ritual:

…O inanimate creature of God, be sanctified, consecrated, and blessed, so that no evil phantasy may appear in you, and that all spirits within you speak intelligibly, truly, and without the least ambiguity.  Amen.

…In the name of the thrice-holy Tetragrammaton Elohim Tzabaoth, I consecrate this piece of ground for my defense, so that no evil spirit may have power to break these bounds prescribed here.  Amen.

Whenever the Trithemian ritual is performed, the shewstone or the ritual area is consecrated for as long as that ritual is performed, and after which the consecration isn’t technically valid anymore.  Every time the ritual is performed, these things must be consecrated again in order for them to be useful in the ritual being performed at that instance.  Over time, with repeated application, the residual power and blessing build up, so that they eventually become powerful tools in their own right.  For example, the original wand I made for conjuration was nothing more than a pine dowel woodburned according to the instructions of the ritual (as Fr. RO taught it); it was not previously consecrated, but its use in conjuration over and over eventually made it a tool of power that gave it the same “oomph” that my ebony Wand of Art, made of ebony and gold and silver and crystal and consecrated over the course of a week, already had from the get-go.  There was a lot of prep involved in the ebony Wand that the pine wand didn’t go through, but over time, the pine wand was conditioned, programmed, and “seasoned” enough to have the same power that the ebony Wand would have had from the get-go.  However, I used that pine wand near-constantly for a full two years before I made my ebony Wand, and it took quite a bit of time for it to attain that same strength.  The ebony Wand, however, already had all that power as soon as I made it, given the use of powerful natural materials and the layers of consecration I put upon it, and it quite easily became even more powerful at a faster rate than the pine wand ever had.  This is why, in many cases, texts like the Key of Solomon have all those elaborate consecration rituals for pretty much everything the magician touches, from quills and paints to knives both utility and spiritual.  By taking the effort of consecrating each of the tools ahead of time, you don’t need to consecrate them on-the-fly each time you use them; simply pick them up and go.  But, to make sure that the consecrations are done right, you too need to be consecrated, purified, and prepared so as to make sure that all the other consecrations are effective.  The Key of Solomon is important in the Western Hermetic tradition because it implies a set of preexisting pacts and processes that one must enter into so as to make the most of the system; Solomon bound the demons, and in some sense the demons are still bound to Solomon’s word, and they will honor whatever Solomon did regardless of who performs it nowadays, and Solomon passed along the pentacles that he received so as to accomplish miraculous works for us to use so long as we make them in the same way he did.  You could make something similar and make a temporary consecration upon it, but you’d need to do the same thing over and over again every time you used it; likewise, you could make a pact with a new spirit that Solomon never contacted, but you wouldn’t be able to rely on the pacts and processes Solomon used because that spirit was never bound by them originally, so you’d need to make a new set of pacts and protocols with that spirit with new, perhaps unpredictable effects or side-effects.

Take that same idea, of on-the-fly consecrations versus pact-based protocols of consecration, and apply it to the idea of whole systems of magic, and you have the auturgia/lineage difference.  On the one hand, you’re building yourself up through new practices that do not rely on preexisting powers or pacts, and on the other hand, you’re being given a set of protocols and pacts that already work and have been worked and have had power put into them.  In the former, you have freedom to do and develop pretty much as you please for your Work, and you get out of it what you put into it.  In the latter, the system is already powerful and stable, and it relies only on your agreements to the terms and conditions in order to do your Work.  As a more modern example, consider the religion I was just initiated into versus the Mathesis practice I’m developing.  In the former, I have been initiated into a godfamily which has maintained practices, protocols, pacts, and powers that they are allowing me access to so long as I continue to work with them and learn with them, and they all received the same from their initiators and godparents, and so forth; our divinities are accustomed to hearing these songs and prayers from us, and know how to act and react accordingly; both the divinities and the initiates know what to expect from each other, so long as we rely on the protocols that have been passed down onto us; we know what works, what doesn’t, what’s approved, what’s disapproved, what’s safe, what’s dangerous.  We all support each other and lend each other our powers and assistance in order to do what we must do, and we all serve as a system of checks and balances on each other to make sure we’re all still doing everything right.  (Note that the word “tradition” literally means “that which is handed down”; if it’s not handed down to you, it’s not a tradition.)  On the other hand, in Mathesis, I’m working directly with the theoi and letters in a novel, experimental way and seeing what works and what doesn’t, what pacts can be made and what pacts should be made, and what practices to develop as useful and what to ignore as useless.  There’s nothing binding me to anything done previously, because nothing has been done previously.  There’s not a lot of power in it yet, because I haven’t yet tapped into what’s powerful, and that’s because I’m still finding out what’s powerful about it.  Mathesis is, as of now, a strictly auturgic practice that relies on no community because there are none others who are initiated into it; it relies on no sacred body of wisdom because there hasn’t been enough wisdom yet to be built up into a body; it relies on no firm protocols because everything is so nebulous and experimental.

However, there’s a way for Mathesis to change itself from being an auturgic practice into a lineaged one.  Once I build it up enough as a system of theurgic exploration and development, once I refine some of the techniques a bit more, once I establish pacts and fail-safes when I work with the spirits, it can be passed onto others.  Once others become initiated into Mathesis, it becomes a lineage, even if it’s just one godparent-godchild step that exists.  At that point, I’ll be able to pass on the powers, pacts, and protocols that have been developed for another to tap into and use, and grant them access to that same power.  Over time, that initiate will be able to initiate others.  With each person that becomes initiated, the fertility of the tradition grows, adding new ideas, powers, and developments to the mix that allow it to grow and develop and mature as a proper tradition.  Will that happen?  Depends on how far I take Mathesis myself; if I never pass it on, then it’d just be something I did by myself for myself, but if I do pass it on, it’ll be passed onto others.  It was an old Greek ideal for a father to pass on his inheritance to his children “in at least the same condition as I received it, if not better”; if an initiate can add to the tradition in a useful, helpful way that grants it more power and stability and maturity, fantastic!  But if not, so long as they can pass on the tradition in the same way they received it without augmentation, and certainly without detriment or loss, then that’s all that’s needed for a tradition or lineage to survive.

From the perspective of a new initiate into a lineage who is accustomed to auturgic Hermetic work, it’s something a relief that most of the heavy Work of pact-building, empowerment, and protocol-development has already been done for me; I just need to be taught the practices, pacts, protocols, and plans that make the tradition work after having gone through them.  In fact, I don’t learn any practice in the religion without it first being done to me; the act of undergoing a ceremony is itself a kind of initiation that grants me access to learning what and how a thing is done.  Compared to auturgic Work, so much is honestly experimental: “I don’t know what this will do to me, but I need to study how to do it in order to accomplish it, and then later I can build upon it”.  It’s one of the reasons why I suggest all newcomers to Hermetic work follow rituals as they are written as closely as possible without innovation first so as to get them accustomed to the baseline practice, and only once they have the baseline set firmly in both the execution of the ritual and the expectation of effects should they innovate, take shortcuts, or change the ritual.  If you’re going to experiment, do so wisely, and only after you know what to expect.

Is there such a thing as a lineaged Hermetic tradition?  Absolutely!  Any initiatory practice done by others, from one generation of initiates to the next, is a lineage: the Golden Dawn and Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wicca are some prime examples that come to mind.  You have a lodge or a temple or a coven that initiates new members and teaches them their practices, protocols, and pacts to new initiates, and then those initiates (if/when ready) go on to initiate their own spiritual godchildren.  Of course, this is more the exception rather than the norm in the Western world; most people choose an auturgic practice, whether because they can’t stand “coven politics”, because they don’t have access to a spiritual family, or because they’re unfit for initiation themselves.  This doesn’t mean they can’t do the Work they need to, but it might be a path that has its own challenges.  Don’t get me wrong, lineaged Work has its own difficulties and problems: politics, policing of character and behavior, agreement to sometimes distasteful practices, and so forth, but it’s a price one must pay.  No such restrictions are there for the auturge, but they have the problems of having nothing to build upon and everything to build.  I suppose it’s a situation where there’s one product and multiple methods of payment available for it.

Are auturgic systems of practice any less worthwhile than lineaged ones?  No, and far from it!  My devotion, love, and respect for the Greek theoi remains unchanged, if not greater than before, but compared to the divinities I was just initiated to, there’s such a stark difference of presence: the divinities I was initiated to are already so powerful when I received them into my life, while I must continuously forge and reforge and strengthen my connection to the theoi in order to achieve the same level of presence.  Both sets of entities can hear me and work with me, but there’s so much less up-front work to do with the initiated divinities that I have to do with the non-initiated theoi because I was not initiated into a tradition of theoi-worship; pacts were not maintained, prayers were not continuously made, and protocols were not remembered, and I must do all the work to dust off whatever I can find and fill in the gaps where necessary so as to “bring the system online” again, as it were.  To continue to use a computer metaphor, it’s much easier for an online gamer to pick a game that already exists and simply get an account and log in, abiding by the terms and conditions and UI-issues and non-intuitive in-game quirks that exist, rather than plan a game idea, code the game, build a server to host the game, and get people to play the game with them.  Same result, different routes and costs to get there.

There’s a difference between simply teaching someone a spiritual/magical system and initiating them into it.  Fr. RO teaches me a kind of magic, but leaves the actual work to me; he did not initiate me into Hermeticism, and this is no fault against him; it never could have been, as it was never his goal to initiate people into a system that he himself was never initiated into, nor needed initiation.  My godfather is teaching me another kind of practice, but he had to initiate me into it so that all the same things that work for him can also work for me, giving me the license and right to work with it that otherwise I would had to pick and guess at.  I see many teachers of Western systems, but few initiators.  There are some Hermetic magicians out there who are, indeed, initiating students into a particular set of practices and pacts, passing on their own license and power onto their students, but this is the uncommon exception to the usual practice.  We don’t often think of Hermetic magic as a kind of initiation-/lineage-based practice, but in many cases, it probably should be.  I know for a fact that some of the powers and blessings we receive from the spheres, such as the Hymns of Silence, can be passed onto others who are ready, but I’ve rarely heard of a magician doing this for their students.

Given the general quietude of the occult blogosphere, and how so much has petered out or calmed down over the past few years (my own blog included!), I wonder if this is a sort of predicament-shift that is facing many people who got into magic around the Great Blogosphere Renaissance, and how many others are wondering this same thing I am now.

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On Maintaining Tradition

Not too long ago, I read on one of my friends’ Facebook walls a particular quote that I find profound and worthy of committing to memory:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.  Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

After the past few posts about how to downsize magic on a budget to what you can manage, it’s probably easy to think that I’m cheering for doing away with tradition and institutionalized forms of magic in occulture in favor of an easier, cheaper route.  Don’t think that I’m supporting this; I mentioned throughout these same posts that, when possible, doing things by the book is important and worth the effort and cost, and if you can afford to do something fancier, you should.  If you can’t but really still need to do something, and if you know the logic and framework of the system you’re trying to change well enough, then doing things in a faster, cheaper, or more streamlined way can also work to more-or-less the same ends, especially if you’re willing to make up for the difference in cost with more ritual work or if you can rely on already-established spiritual contacts.

Not too long ago, I was recently initiated into a religion that places a huge amount of emphasis on tradition.  Not just ritual protocols and songs, though those are hugely important, but even the small things like how to ask questions, how to treat certain ritual objects on a weekly basis, and the like.  Even the smallest details are often the hinge upon which something is done, and changing these things wantonly is a huge no-no against the people and household who initiated me.  While eventually I might be able to experiment and listen to the spirits with whom we work and find ways that work better for me, those times are yet far off and I have much to learn, and there’s no guarantee I can or should find my own way to work.

However, our tradition is just that, our own, and even closely-associated houses within the same overarching religion might have vastly different ways of doing particular things.  Does this make them wrong?  No!  As with most cultures and religions, there is no centralized or centrally-managed “correct” way to do things.  Variations are to be expected based on location, time period, and evolution within those contexts, and it’s natural to assume that what I consider right, another might consider wrong.  Is that alright?  Of course!  Just because I do something differently doesn’t make either of us wrong, so long as we’re following the traditions and working within them as we should.  That our traditions differ doesn’t mean one tradition has to be changed to suit the other.  It just means that our traditions are different and that we respect our own traditions’ validity, and respect the power of other people to maintain their own traditions.

There’s a big push in occulture, and there has been a while, based on postmodernism, Discordianism, and chaos magic theory that we can do anything we want to do and change anything we want because it’s us who’s doing the work and all that’s really powering our magic is, ultimately, us.  I find that notion half-cute and half-obscene.  For one, no, we’re not alone in the cosmos; that kind of solipsistic thinking is insulting to the others who do, in fact, exist regardless of what we think of them, be they spirit or man, alive or dead.  For another, thinking that we can do whatever the hell we want and being right in how we’re doing it regardless disregards the logic, framework, and methodology that has been built up in the traditions passed down to us, and to disregard that or, worse, to cherrypick from them

The word “tradition” literally means “that which is handed down to us”.  We call a lot of things “traditions” when, in reality, they’re no such thing; it was “tradition” at my university to streak the libraries during finals, when it was really just a meme done by one or two generations of students and people wanted to show how edgy or ballsy they were.  That’s not a tradition.  A tradition is something that has been handed down to you as a whole unit from another person, who themselves received it from another person, and so forth until a particular person had a particular revelation that needed to be passed on.  The person who gives that tradition to you is, essentially, an initiator, and you are their initiate in that tradition.  In maintaining that tradition that was given to you, you show your initiator and all their initiators respect for continuing that work, the contracts they made, the sacrifices they paid for, and living their own lives to pass that tradition on.  Thus, what Chesterton said above about tradition makes this poignantly clear to me: regardless of heeding what innovations we ourselves or others make, tradition is heeding the innovations of our ancestors and those who came before us.

Now, I’m not always a stickler for tradition.  It can on occasion be a good move to break from tradition and do things differently, and not everything that’s been passed down is always a good thing.  Sometimes our morals dictate that times have changed and so too should the things we do; sometimes changing climates, famine, war, migration, and the like prevent us from doing things the way things have been done in the past.  Sometimes our ancestors operated on inexact or incomplete knowledge and we honestly have better ways to do things now that couldn’t be done in the past.  A particular story comes to mind about how certain things are passed on that no longer need to be heeded:

A young woman is preparing a pot roast while her friend looks on.  She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her friend asks.  “I don’t know”, she replies.  “My mother always did it that way and I learned how to cook it from her”.

Her friend’s question made her curious about her pot roast preparation.  During her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”  Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven”.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.  Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”

Her daughter’s inquiry made the mother think more about the pot roast preparation.  When she next visited her mother in the nursing home, she asked, “Mom, how do you cook a pot roast?”  The mother slowly answered, thinking between sentences.  “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.  The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”  The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered.  “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then.  I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned.”

Just because a tradition declares a certain method to be valid within that tradition doesn’t mean that tradition is infallible.  It just means that that’s how the tradition has codified something; should the code need to change for a good reason while keeping the tradition intact, then there’s no reason that the tradition shouldn’t be changed, though the original method and new way should both be kept in mind.  After all, the original method was made for a reason.

When learning magic or any sort of old art, it behooves us to learn the traditional way of doing things first.  I’m no fan of reading a ritual in a book and changing it outright to suit our own needs, especially without taking the time to see why that particular ritual was written that particular way in that particular book.  This is especially true when we consider a book to be a compendium of traditions with dozens, maybe hundreds of initiators’ teachings present within it, and all their cumulative experience in a particular act present in a codified, static form; the ritual is written that way for a reason, and we should strive to follow that ritual as it is presented to us before we go changing it around because we feel like we’re in the right to so do.  Hint: you’re not.  You might be in the right if you try the ritual and can change parts of it without changing the result or the effect, all while maintaining the integrity of the tradition you’re essentially buying into by following the book, but you’re not in the right to disregard parts of it outright and cherrypick the parts you like because you feel you’re important like that.

If you like, consider a tradition a “canonical” form of a particular body of knowledge and actions against which other acts can be compared.  If something follows the tradition closely or to the letter, we can call that thing traditional.  If that something changes a few things without changing the overall flow, feel, or structure, then we might call that thing an innovation within the tradition.  If that thing changes much to affect the flow and structure, even it reaches towards the same ends, then it’s no longer traditional nor does it belong in that tradition.  While none of these three things are “wrong” when trying to accomplish a particular goal, if we’re initiated into a particular tradition, we need to be very careful about what we show to others as part of that tradition.

Ultimately, in our lives and especially in our Work, we need to be concerned with what works and with what works best, but we also need to be mindful of what’s worked for those who have gone before us and what is known to work for others.  What works best for us might work only for us based on our own work, and this sort of thing inherently cannot become traditional though it may fit within an overall tradition.  What can be passed on should be passed on, generally speaking, and what’s been passed down to us should be passed down to others whenever possible, even if we no longer use it.  Even if it’s just for memory’s and veneration’s sake, tradition is valuable and can help others innovate on their own.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote those posts on doing magic cheaply on a budget.  Sure, anyone can whip up a ritual with a candle or a stick and get magic accomplished; that’s not the point.  Many people are used to working within traditions with access to rare, obscure, or precious items, and depending on where we are in our lives or what’s going on around us, we may not have the ability to carry out those traditions with the resources and tools we have available to us.  This doesn’t mean we can’t do our work that we’re used to, but it means we have to work within those traditions we’ve been taught in a way that maintains faithfulness to them while being aware of our limitations and own context.  Traditions aren’t necessarily fixed things, though it’s nice to keep them as fixed as we can.  Thus, within the Solomonic tradition, if we live in a place where hazel doesn’t grow, we can’t rightly make our wands from a wood we can’t obtain, so we need to find a wood that is available that works as well as hazel might.  If we’re too poor to make lamens from gold, we need to find another material that we can obtain.  We can still be traditional even if we’re unable to do as we were taught.

On Supporting People Spiritually

Note: this post was written a few months ago during a bit of a chaotic period in my life.  I was angry and hurt, as were several others around me, and I don’t consider that to be the best time to write, so I shelved the post.  However, I wanted to get the message out, and I figured I may as well post it now that I’ve cooled off, because this is something I want people to know.

When you become good enough at magic, spirituality, or whatever, you will often get the urge to spread what you’ve learned and done.  Not everyone, granted; not everyone has a parenting instinct, and not everyone is meant to be a parent physically or spiritually.  That’s fine.  But some people are meant to do just that.  Some people are meant to initiate others, to guide others, to teach others, and depending on one’s own spiritual tradition and practice, that urge can be realized into action in different ways.  Some people start online classes while others write books, while still others will spiritually adopt people into a godfamily of sorts, making them part of their spiritual house.

This is not something to be taken lightly.  People who give birth to real children make that relationship for life.  People who initiate people into being their godchildren make a lifetime bond of another kind, one that can’t be reneged upon.

Yes, I’ve heard the arguments that a mother eagle will, once its chicks are old enough, push them out of the nest so that they can fly off and do their own thing.  Eagles, after all, don’t permit freeloaders.  Wolves, too, once they grow old enough will eventually split off from their litter and form their own pack or form part of a small one, but usually leaving to make their own if they’re strong enough.  Many animals need that time on their own to develop and become independent, strong, and fierce to the point of beautifully savage.

We are not birds.
We are not dogs.
We are humans.

Human.  Fucking.  Beings.

Animals might survive on their own in the wild.  Humans do not.  Humans build families, houses, tribes.  We move together.  We fight together.  We watch each other’s backs.  We trust each other.  If everything fails, then we either die together or we split up to make new tribes.  What we don’t do is kick someone out to make them do better on their own.  We do better by being better together.  If we fight, we fight together; if we fight amongst ourselves, we work it out.  The Bedouin, one of the world’s most famous nomadic tribes, encapsulates this all: I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, my cousins and I against strangers.  You uphold the sanctity, power, protection, and preservation of your in-group (house, clan, coven, order, whatever) against all others.  That’s how this shit works.  When you have a follower or godchild, you support them forever unless they leave on their own for their reasons or unless they are directly attacking you; that bond, however strained, cannot be broken.  You do not decide to rescind support for someone you spiritually get involved with like that.  You coach them, you teach them, you instruct them, you chew them out, you bitch them out, you smack them, but you do not forsake them.

If you have a problem with that, then you shouldn’t bother supporting others.  If you can’t uphold that, then you’re not ready to support others.  Be careful and be absolutely sure of yourself when you take on the responsibility of having a follower or godchild.  Once you make that commitment, you can’t go back on it.  If you turn your back on your spiritual family, you have more problems than just earning my ire or losing my respect.

Advice for Learning a Totally Foreign System

I try to be an avid reader in my copious spare time, and I don’t mean with my ever-expanding RSS feed that aggregates occult, religious, pagan, current event, and the occasional comic blog.  My living room at home could always use more bookshelves, and of the three people in my house, I’m the one supplying over 95% of the books, because of course magicians have books.  Not all of them are on astrology, divination, conjuration, Hermeticism, or goetia, though.  I have a strong penchant for works of the realm of pure imagination, which is to say fiction books.

One of my favorite fiction books ever, and one I highly recommend anyone interested in the brand of magic I pursue, is Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle.  It appears to be out of print, but you can still find plenty of good used copies anywhere online.  Basically, the premise of the book is this: what if the world we lived in obeyed Aristotelian physics, the cosmos was geocentric with actual crystalline spheres of the planets nesting around us, and history took a drastically different turn during the reign of Alexander the Great that continued the supremacy of Athens and Sparta across the Western world for another millennium?  It’s a fantastic exercise in exploring an alternative reality and an alternative history all at once, told in the style of a first-person Homeric epic.  Besides its good story and good world-building (of which Richard Garfinkle is an expert, I claim), this is one of the essential books any Hermeticist should read at least once.

However, it’s not all about alchemy and astrology and celestial navigation, since the empire of the Delian League isn’t the only contender for world domination.  There’s also the Middle Kingdom, which some of you may recognize as a translation of 中國, referring to China, and they have their own notions of how the world works that doesn’t obey the laws of Aristotle and the alchemists.  The Delian League can’t for the life of them figure out how Middler technology works with its weird energy flows, nor can the Middle Kingdom figure out the senselessness of Delian alchemy and science.  This goes right down to some of their fundamental notions of science and philosophy that shape their entire worldview, such as the connection between science and medicine.  The Athenian Academic Aias, at one point, interrogates the rural Middler Dr. Zi about what Aias perceives to be highly advanced Middler spy communication technology:

“Why does an ordinary doctor know about this?” I asked.

“Medicine is the foundation of science.” he said in the same mechanical way I might recite Aristotle’s laws of motion.

I had seen that sentence in several texts on Taoist science but had never believed they meant it.  To our science, medicine was an offshoot of zeology, the study of life, and anthropology, the study of man.  No Academic could believe that such a minor offshoot subject could be the cornerstone from which an understanding of the world could be built. (page 158)

Later, after some fairly big conflict in the story, Aias interrogates the Taoist scientist Phan, sent on a death mission to kill Aias and sabotage his mission, about how Phan can know so much about medicine:

“Are you a doctor?” I said, recalling Dr. Zi’s peculiar claim of a connection between the whole of Middler science and their medicine.

Phan’s face wrinkled in contempt. “Certainly not.”

“Then how will you cure him?”

He switched to ‘Ellenic. “I know medicine.”

“But you said you weren’t a doctor,” I said in ‘Unan.

Phan’s black eyes lit with a sudden understanding. “A doctor only knows medicine.  A scientist must go beyond that simple beginning.  Medicine is the foundation stone of alchemy, and alchemy the foundation stone of science.” (page 256)

I see this kind of fundamental difficulty in trying to understand different occult systems replete throughout modern occulture.  We take certain fundamental axioms as truly universal and, worse, for granted based on the system we find our intellectual “home” in, and when we try to apply them to other systems that don’t share those axioms, we run into wall after wall after insurmountable wall.  Trying to apply a Celtic understanding of the world, for instance, to Egyptian metaphysics tries to combine two radically different systems that are based upon different rules and develop them differently into two radically different cosmologies.  It’s not impossible to truly learn a different system, as I’ve mentioned before several times over, but it’s hard, because we essentially have to unlearn everything and start from the ground up in a totally new land that we’re unfamiliar with.  It’s especially hard because we’re always tempted to bring a little of what we’re used to to this new land, and it often has no place right out of the box.

That said, I’ve found an easier way to go about learning a new system, and Aias describes how he became the first Academic from the Delian League to ever understand Middler science:

“We seem to be having a language problem,” I said to Phan.  “Let us start from first principles.  You know the atomic theory, of course.”

“I have seen that phrase in your books, but I have never understood it.”

“Atomic theory says that everything in the terrestrial world is made of minute pieces of earth, air, fire, and water. The material properties of an object can be changed by modifying the amount of each element it contains.”

Phan shook is head. “Anything can be in a state of earth, air, fire, water, or wood,” he said. “The ten thousand things are changed into one another by the natural flow of transformation.”

We continued to argue about basics for half an hour.  I explained that matter and form were fundamental to the behavior of objects.  He declared them to be accidents, saying that the flow and transformation of things lay at the heart of all science.  At the end of that time we had found no common ground, but we were both very thirsty… (page 250)

“I need to know more about your science,” I said to Phan.

“Tell me how to teach you,” he said.  There was a quiet glow in his dark eyes and something lay on his shoulders that made his seventy-year-old frame look younger and stronger. “If you can learn to learn, then perhaps I can as well.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I need to know your science, also,” he said, and his eyes grew brighter. “But where do we begin?”

“At the weakest point in the barrier between us,” I said.  “The walls of theory are too high; let us start with practice.  Show me your equipment.  Pretend that I am not a scientist. Pretend that I am some ignorant bureaucrat who wants an explanation of your work so he can make out reports.”

The old man smiled and bowed. “Will you do the same for me?”

“Of course.”

Over the next week, Phan and I gave each other basic introductions to the paraphernalia of our sciences.  I showed him how we used rare and dense air to create forced motion, and he showed me how gold, silver, and cinnabar placed along Xi flow could modify or control natural motion. Slowly, the dark cavern in my heart began to grow bright with a second vision of the universe, one of change and flow instead of matter and form. And as the light of practical work grew from a flickering candle to a solar beacon, it illuminated the bewildering Taoist texts I had studied over the years but had gained nothing from. (page 299)

We don’t call it the Study.

We don’t call it the Theory.

We don’t call it the Lesson.

We call it the Work, because we have to make it work.  Theory, study, and lessons aren’t enough; they’re all well and good in the abstract, but unless you can pull those things down and apply them in the real world, they get locked up in an isolated ivory tower, and they lock you up with it.

In my experience, the best way to understand how a different tradition works is to go out and see what it does.  Not what it believes or what it claims to exist, but actually what it does.  It’s the Work, the hands-on practical use and application of the tradition, that shows what it does and how it does it.  I mean, consider what the ancestors of our ancestors were doing when they first stumbled upon this stuff.  They had no preexisting theories, no cosmologies; they had the land around them and shit happening because of unseen forces.  They acted in a certain way, and the unseen forces and the land reacted in a certain manner.  It was only after they started codifying and assembling what they learned did the theories come around, and based on what each tribe of ancestors thought was most important (warmth from snow, harvesting enough fish, protection from tornadoes, warding off plague, etc.), they would have focused on different things to do, and thus the theories they developed would have been different.

Thus far in my occult life, I’ve come in contact with Santería, Palo, Quimbanda, Aztec and Mayan stuff, Celtic stuff (both neopagan and reconstructionist), Ásatrú, Thelema, esoteric Judaism, and so many other traditions both modern and ancestral.  No, they’re not all compatible to practice side-by-side.  No, they don’t agree on why the world works or what a particular entity is or whether a particular thing is ruled by a class of spirits.  No, they don’t all think the same things are important.  And you know what?  That’s all entirely okay, because what they all do is manage the bullshit we have in life.  They all manage to achieve particular ends using a particular set of techniques, and that’s what we see first and that’s what we continue with when we learn a new system.  Just because they have different and often-conflicting ways to describe the cosmos doesn’t mean they’re not internally coherent within their own individual traditions.

Forget the theory and cosmology and cosmogony; all that will come with time.  If you never saw something fall to the ground, why would you believe gravity to exist?  If you never had to undergo a shortage of healthy and safe food, why would you believe food poisoning or famine in another country to exist?  Humans have to see to believe, and we like hands-on stuff the best to drive the strongest points home.  Once we figure out what can happen, we can eventually puzzle out why it happens based on what we know and the hypotheses and explanations we devise that we can put to further testing.

But even then, it all comes down to Work, and when explaining your work, never start with “why”.  Ask “what” or “how”.  What are the tools you use?  How would you describe the effect a particular tool has when used in a particular way?  What are the forces you call upon?  What are their names?  How do they interrelate and interact?  How do you gain confirmation that something works?  How do you gain information about something you don’t know yet?  What do you need to achieve a particular end?

Remember: without work, you’re not doing the Work.  See the work that others do to understand their Work.