The state of ceremonial magic in the twentyfirst century

A few years ago I went to a magical conference having heard about this fantastic event populated by proper magicians in a spectacular location. I say proper magicians because I’m drawing the difference between magicians and the sort of people you get at many other ‘pagan’ events where the goddess phenomenon seems to have taken over completely.

This is a post that I wrote for their forum after my second visit. That visit left me a bit disappointed. I’ve published it here because I found the notes for the post while I was cleaning out some old files from my PC. I’ve tried to remove any direct references to the event (no names, no pack drill) as I want this to be a more general comment on the state of ceremonial magick today but the experience leaves me with some good examples of how things might be going wrong. After I posted this on their forum some members posted some valid reasons for using that temple as a lounge and I sort of understood, but other responses were less constructive and more unwelcoming of criticism; still, each to their own. The organisers may have resolved some of these issues as I’ve not spoken to them since but my point is about the way magick is going generally and that point still remains.

When I first went to the conference I hoped to find serious magick practised by people with experience and a care for the outcome. For years I’ve attended rituals where there seems to be little thought about structure with some consideration of symbolism but not applied in a way to have any real impact. Further, since the advent of magick that is less hidebound than it was 50 or 100 years ago there seems to be lots of rituals where magick is treated so lightly that it simply isn’t magick any more. Simply put, the magick seems to have been thrown out with the holy water.

spiders

So in 2009 my girlfriend and I went to this conference with high expectations. When we arrived we were not put off by the cold castle (as it was promoted) that was really a fortified house built for the shooting parties of the landed gentry converted into a school/prison camp/whatever, because it was still a really cool place even if the castle bit was slightly over sold. We were not put off by the uncomfortable beds and scruffy, draughty interiors. We were not put off by the spiders falling on the two of us while we were trying to have a shag. We were not even put off by the 600 mile round trip. We were certainly not put off by the ticket price with excellent, all inclusive food and great fellowship.

At the end of that first weekend someone asked us what was our high point. My girlfriend had to stop me half way through my response when I was about to say it was our trip to Steel Rigg on Hadrian’s Wall. (Honestly, if you have never been to Steel Rigg, you have to go some time, even in the rain. In fact the wind and rain might actually make it better so long as you are dressed for it.) Her concern was that my high point was something that was nothing to do with the conference, but that was true. So I smiled nicely and gave a diplomatic response and said something polite about the venue, or the food, or the effort the organisers make to get it all together. However, I couldn’t bring myself to praise the rituals so I said nothing about them.

I made the 600 mile round trip for the rituals; I went for the magick; I went for the magicians; I went for the people. However, I was disappointed, not by the people, but by the way the people treated the magick that is the very reason for my being.

expectations

In 2011 I went again, actually because of the castle/food/spiders on the ceiling/600 mile drive/great food at Tebay motorway services/getting lost in the corridors/spending time around the wonderful open fire. I went for all that. However, on that visit I didn’t go for the magick. My expectations of quality magick have diminished over the years and I’ve become a bit cynical about it.

You see I’m a bit tired of so called rituals where we make a noise that somebody just thought up and wave vaguely in the direction of north/south/your spirit/your genitals /etc. That’s not a ritual, that’s something that is the same as music and movement from when I was in primary school. Why is that not a ritual? It’s not a ritual because it has no gnosis.

The state of mind that the term gnosis describes, as I understand it as someone who hasn’t read Liber YXZ, is an altered state that breaks (or thins) the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind. It may break other barriers too but if it does that much I’m happy enough.

ceremony

Since the seventies there have been movements in magick to move away from the hidebound ceremonial approach. The ceremonial approach generates gnosis by its very nature with repetition and the comfort of familiarity, formality and reverence. That’s why the Gnostic Mass is such a great ritual, as is a royal wedding, like it or not. It’s what the big structured religions are so good at and probably why they have so many followers. Simply put, grand ceremony has impact and impact means that the event touches the observer in some way. Other traditional approaches use emotional tension, apprehension, fear, sex, etc. Modern forms of magick now embrace other forms of gnosis. Rule breaking or experimental magick has come into existence, once described as running barefoot in the head. So now we have gnosis from humour (difficult to manage but powerful so long as it’s not forced), and other forms that would have been sacrilegious 100 years ago.

They tried to use humour at the conference. Now to use humour you don’t have to be Stephen Fry, but it certainly helps. To make a situation funny on the spur of the moment is very difficult. To use humour with no structure and a vague hope for comedy is just not going to cut it. Using humour just by dressing up is more likely to make people cringe. They might laugh at such antics but that’s more likely to be laughter in embarrassment and if that emotion is not directed it won’t count for anything.

On one particular evening we sat down to dinner and another visitor asked about the pre-dinner ritual that had been listed in the schedule. When I pointed out that we had just seen the ritual her reply was, “That was a ritual?!” All I could do in response was to shrug. Later I couldn’t even remember what took place before dinner in that so called ritual. Now let me point out the implications of that. The pre-dinner ritual had no impact whatsoever, in fact my memory has dumped it. Of course some might like to argue, in vain hope, that it had such impact that my conscious mind has erased it and its gone completely into my unconscious but I’d say that’s hopeful bollocks?

gnosis

Rituals that are silly all the time are just plain silly. They have no impact and are nothing more than street theatre. In fact street theatre has more impact because the participants are likely to be trained in drama and the audience often talks about it for ages after. A proper ritual is a special moment, not just drunkenness. A proper ritual has structure and gnosis. The structure contains the symbolism and directs the gnosis to where it will have its effect. (Please don’t take me to task if my use of the word gnosis differs from your normal accepted use as I live in the magickal wilderness and don’t mix much with hierarchical orders that have systems and accepted terminologies.) Gnosis is the oomph that drives the symbolism to where it is intended to work. Without the two there is no point. A ritual where we make vague air or water sounds to evoke air or water doesn’t really do anything. Does making a vague gurgling sound make you feel emotional as water symbolism should? Does making a swooshing sound perk up your intellect and make you pay attention as air symbolism should? Both of these are examples from one of the rituals that weekend. Of course a given symbol operates at an unconscious level but made up sounds don’t really do that.

Now of course not every symbolic act, noise or smell has an immediate effect. But if you read Crowley’s diaries (or somewhere I read it) he says if you want to create Tiphareth you paint (or drape) the temple yellow, adorn it with the relevant plants, fill the air with the correct incenses, eat the food of the correct correspondences and do all those other things ingrained by centuries of repeated use. The point is, he says, that everywhere you look, every image you see, every sense of your mind/body/spirit is filled with the corresponding reference. If the symbolism for your intention is related to looning around then loon around, but if it’s not then don’t do it!

temple

In the conference venue that I’m referring to they had a particular room that was used for the major rituals. The room was decked out with the trappings of a ceremonial temple, altars, steps, pillars, etc., all painted in the correct Masonic colours, black and white chequers, all the right details down to the Nth degree. (Again forgive me if my terminology is incorrect.) The effort these people put into building their temple is second to none and they are to be praised for that effort. However, the room was also used as a lounge and workshop venue and somewhere to chase through in something that I recollect as akin to hide and seek. (There’s nothing wrong with hide and seek per-se, especially when everybody is a bit wasted in a venue that is a natural maze, but there are limits.)

There is a point to setting out some rules for keeping a temple as a sacred space, for having it consecrated from start to finish, for only entering past the sacred seal by those permitted in the correct manner with reverence and suitable justification to be there, for not partying in there, for not using the temple for workshops that are not sacred rituals, for creating the most high and respected position of temple warden who is the first to enter, so that person will enforce this discipline on pain of shame for those who break the rules. There is a point to all this. That point is that as soon as you cross the threshold of The Temple (not the room that is used as the alternative lounge) you will be able to taste the gnosis before you even start.

The room I am thinking of in this venue is a wonderful space. It has some history, an appearance of majesty that implies gnosis from the start. It has two magnificent entrances that could be allocated to priesthood and participants. It has everything that makes it special. To use it for other things cheapens it. To have a Temple in the way that I describe would begin to add gnosis to the whole weekend and start to do away with the music and movement aspect that the event is apparently cursed with. If you want to party in your temple then I don’t want to practice magick with you and I certainly wouldn’t invite you into my temple. If that is the case you need to look up the meaning of the word temple.

party

If the only people that return each year are the members of your order, plus a few mates, then you don’t have a magickal retreat (or whatever you’d like it to be). You have a party to which you allow other people to buy tickets. People who come to magickal conferences, symposia, retreats and the like, expect some things; they expect magick and not just a load of messing about; they expect rituals that are properly thought out and not pasted together from a few vague ideas. In this case less is most definitely more. A policy of never mind the quality, feel the width doesn’t work.

The long standing magical orders that have names going back generations carry the torch of those that have gone before; fucking about with the flame will only blow it out. From what I can see there is but a glimmer remaining. Establishing a proper sacred space would start the process of rekindling that flame. Or you could party in your temple; continue pissing in the holy water, and wonder why nobody turns up any more.

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4 comments

  1. yup, i am ambivalent on this- keep the goodstuff that works, but try new things.using a temple as a lounge may be necessary in a 1 bed flat, but not in a castle…. Dave E

  2. Oh indeed, I'm all for experimentation but that was my point about throwing the sacred out with the holy water (or whatever it was that I said). I've often been described as a chaos magician. (I'm trying to limit my purchases of black T shirts.) It's just that there are mechanisms in the working of magic and, it seems, many people don't seem to understand when they are breaking those mechanisms.

  3. Yes, mixed feelings on this myself too, having been guilty of adding some comic touches to sacred OTO rituals – and yet I felt i kept the balance, and the magic, overall.

    I'm sorry to put a long quote on your blog, but something I wrote in the 90s for the What I Did book is so relevant, and shows the problem was around then too. It refers to the OTTO – the magical order of Over The Top Occultists designed to take seriousness to dizzy new heights. I had to dig back into obsolete software to find this, but shows I had similar doubts back then.

    SERIOUS FUN

    Perhaps a last word from the OTTO?
    Some occultists have really taken on board the need to have a sense of humour and not be too stuffy. I have attended some pagan ceremonies where there has been a delightful “woops! I forgot the consecration!” sort of atmosphere which makes a splendid contrast to the stuffy old ceremonial of the established church. But what did it do for the magic?
    I recall Nietzsche's saying that the maturity of man is when he regains the seriousness of a child at play. One small problem with our informal and easy-going society is that it does not give us much incentive to be serious. One nice thing about ritual is that it can give us the excuse to be solemn and serious which ordinary life does not provide.
    Like bittersweet flavours, solemnity and fun can be most delicious when brought into closest proximity. How do we do it?
    There are two ways. The first I call the Christian formula: it is to have fun first, and then get serious. The Pagan formula is to be serious first, then have fun.
    In the first approach you let rip on the sin, and then have a spiritual hangover and go for confession and absolution as befits a religion where the prodigal son gets greater love than his goody-goody brethren. (This may explain why the public experiences Christmas as a month long frolic which ends on the 25th of December, rather than a 12 day celebration beginning on the 25th.)
    The second approach seems rather naughty in comparison: you begin with a solemn invitation for the Gods to join you, so that there presence will stimulate a rather better orgy to follow. Here the more solemn and moving the initial ritual, the more ecstatic can be the release – according to OTTO doctrine.
    Whereas the winning formula in New Age workshops is that all deep feelings must be expressed as incoherently as possible in order to prove how deep they are and thus win applause – men must adopt an attitude of “I’m just an incoherent bloke aspiring to New Manhood” and women must be fluffy airheads dumbstruck with awe at the beautiful loving consciousness of everyone else present – a rather different mental approach is demanded in OTTO rituals. It is that “I am a reincarnation of Sir Charles Irving, the world's greatest ever Shakespearian actor, but fat chance of this crowd of nerds appreciating the fact unless I really lay it on thick”.
    Eleanor Bron won instant honourary adeptship for her superb portrayal of the mourning Isis in a scene in Ken Russel's film of Women In Love – essential viewing for OTTO aspirants needing to bone up on sweeping gestures and dramatic pauses.
    So OTTO rituals allow tremendous scope for solemnity. In fact one of the most important disciplines practiced by OTTO initiates is “the look that kills” – at the least suggestion of a titter or smirk from anyone present, the ponderously gesticulating and intoning hierophant will turn and glare.
    The ideal ritual thus begins with quiet dignity, then grows increasingly theatrical and over-played as each participant sacrifices inhibitions on the alter of ego inflation – seeing their own “performance” as sublime while everyone else is being utterly ridiculous. The resulting atmosphere develops the repressive intensity of a girls' school speech day when the headmistress' skirt splits as she reaches to shake hands with the mayor…
    Such a ritual just has to end in a party.

  4. Yes Indeed Lionel, I think I agree with you completely. The point is there is a time and a place for everything. The impression I got was that your idea of the OTTO indicated that you were moving away from the whole grand ceremony approach. I remember one of the workings we did with the visualisation of the guy climbing the mountain and losing his whole temple equipment over the cliff, then having to work without it. From your message here are you saying that you don't see it that way any more?

    Personally I don't mind messing with tradition and the mad scientists workings were an example of that but even those had a strong ceremonial style. However, a bunch of guys expressing their cheer leader fetish by stuffing balloons up their shirts, wearing mini skirts (albeit with boots on lest we get the wrong idea) and waving pom-poms while calling Hail the Sun… Well I'm afraid that's a step too far away from ceremony. It was comical which was part of the aim it set the theme of the whole weekend and there was almost nothing that was taken seriously.

    Crowley talked of the aim of religion with the method of science. To me that means there are mechanisms to be understood and fucking with those mechanisms fucks with the results and the similarly fucks with point of doing magick at all.

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