The Red Magic of Lammas

The British archipelago, that cluster of islands off the European mainland on which I live, is changing colour. The sky, while still sometimes blessed with the bright blue of summer, now fills with the grey of anvil headed thunder clouds, gravid with rain. The green of the land, with trees magnificent in their full leaf, tips over into the gold of harvest time. Rolls, bales, and here in North Devon even stooks of grain, stand sculptural in the fields. This is the time of Lammas, a time associated with Red Magic in the Chaos Craft interpretation of The Wheel of the Year.

In Liber Kaos Peter J. Carroll describes Red Magic as ‘war magic’. Inspired perhaps by his father’s military experiences Carroll often uses combative metaphors in his work. However, there are many other approaches to understanding Red Magic. My perception of this ‘ray’ or ‘sephira’, to use older nomenclature, is similarly influenced by my father. When my Dad did his National Service, or more accurately was conscripted, he did so as a medic. Perhaps this is a reason why my perception of Red Magic is, in part, refracted through the lens not of war but of medicine. Healing and war do of course have much in common. For instance, it can sometimes be useful to describe biological processes in martial terms: a virus can ‘invade’ the body and ‘attack’ our cells whereupon ‘guard’ cells and other ‘defenders’ begin the ‘counter-attack’ etc etc. However the essence of chaos magic, as a philosophical practice, is to recognize that this vocabulary, like any series of metaphorical statements, inevitably reveals certain truths while concealing others. For example, the military narrative of ‘viral attack’ if taken literally would seem to be quite incompatible with the processes by which viruses become part of our genome

On both the battlefield and in the context of healing one of the virtues of Red Magic is that of courage. This courage is the bravery of the child resolving to rip off a sticking plaster in one swift movement, or the courage to face a devastating diagnosis and find ways to live as well as one can, not only to ‘fight’ an illness, but also to open to the experience and to learn from it. This courage can be quiet and unassuming, such as the social courage to live with illnesses that cannot be seen as signs by others, but only reported as symptoms. There is the courage to face rehabilitative exercises and surgical procedures, the courage of seeking to heal our trauma, and the courage of reaching out for help. 

magnetic hematite ally

There’s also the courage to wait before we act; to be patient until the time is right before we scythe the crop or the determination to endure the swelling boil until it is ripe for the lancet. In combative terms – for indeed one important aspect of Red Magic is how we deal with adversaries as well as adversity – we bide our time so that when make our move there is a swift and comprehensive effect.

When we work with Red Magic the emphasis on cultivating virtues, such as courage, can be helpful to stop us battling with monsters and thereby becoming monsters ourselves. It is also important to remember that while violent conflict (war) is part of the human repertoire – and arguably that of some other species too – the realist knows that beneath the thin veneer of civilization (with all its exploitative characteristics) human nature is fundamentally kind and collaborative (check out the excellent Humankind; A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman for more on this).

These processes of endurance, of breaking, of cutting, of drawing lines in the sand, are central to the iconography of Lammas. This is the time of the dying god, the cutting of the Corn King who gives us our daily bread and becomes, in the words of the Wiccan ceremony of Cakes & Wine ‘The Body of our Harvest Lord’. The agricultural tools of this time of the year are the blade, the flail, and the grindstone. The Red Magic gods are deities of warfare as well as gods of agriculture and self-sacrifice. Týr, for example, from the Norse pantheon, who gives us our day-name ‘Tuesday’ , bravely gives up his hand in the process of binding the wolf Fenrir. Týr is a deity suitably invoked by Pagan practitioners who are serving members of the armed forces and emergency services in these difficult times, and by those seeking justice.

The mythology of Lammas, that speaks of the courage to cut and be transformed, to fall and rise again, to give up power and so find it, is deliciously captured in the folk ballad John Barleycorn:

There were three men came out of the West

Their fortunes for to try,

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn must die.

They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in

Throwing clods upon his head,

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time

Till the rains from heaven did fall,

Then little Sir John’s sprung up his head

And so amazed them all!

They let him stand till the Midsummer Day

Till he grew both pale and wan,

Then little Sir John’s grew a great long beard

And so become a man.

They hire’d men with scythes so sharp

To cut him off at the knee.

They bound and tied him around the waist

Serving him most barb’rously.

They hire’d men with their sharp pitch-forks

To prick him to the heart

But the drover served him worse than that

For he bound him to a cart.

They drove him around and around the field

Till they came unto a barn

And these three men made a solemn vow

On poor John Barleycorn

They hire’d men with crab-tree sticks

To strip him skin from bone,

But the miller, he served him worse than that,

For he ground him between two stones.

There’s Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl

And brandy in the glass

But Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl

Proved the stronger man at last.

For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox

Nor loudly blow his horn

And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle or pot

Without a little Barleycorn.

(I recommend Damh the Bard’s version of this tune as well as his seasonal celebratory Lughnasadh and the dialogue ballad of Green and Grey.)

In this season of Red Magic it is time to take aim, to swing, and cut with skill and clear intention. This is the time to take control of processes, to consider how and what we might need to change in our lives. What needs to be harvested, what cut down and, if necessary, incinerated to make fertile ash and space for new growth.

Along with Samhain, Lammas is a time when we consider endings and death, including our own mortality. What have we achieved in our lives, what nourishment for the future will be left by our ashes? What are the fruits of our labours? As the Norse folk would ask; what will be our renown? What stories, if any, will be told of us by future generations?

As ye sow…

As we age, and enter our golden years, we are drawn by necessity to focus attention on our own mortality, our health and our vigour. In my case, aged 52, I find myself in what Victor Hugo calls ‘the youth of old age’. I’m aware that I need to actively invest more energy in caring for my bodymind. There are only so many times you can copy a file before glitches inevitably start to happen and – until one gets to re-spawn (to continue the gaming metaphor) – it makes sense to aim for compression of morbidity. This means actively working to be as well as we can be so that, when our death process arrives, it is as easy as possible. My tai chi teacher puts this brilliantly, quipping; “the purpose of tai chi is to live a long, happy and productive life and then die quickly and easily so as not to be a burden on your family and friends’. Tai chi chuan is a great example of the multivalent nature of Red Magic. With the Chinese name of this ‘martial art’ being commonly translated as ‘supreme ultimate boxing’, in one sense tai chi is clearly a species of ‘war magic’. But to see it only in those terms would be to ignore its many other aspects, such as its value as a means to cultivate good health, and as an approach to spiritual illumination.

The daylight draws in, and as the apples swell on the trees, the temperature drops while swifts circle frantically overhead before beginning their long migration to Africa. For my friends in the Southern Hemisphere the spring rises and the light grows. But for all of us on the planet, as we move through this shared experience of pandemic together, may we find skilful ways to connect with the spirit of these times, the courage to face our fears, and the opportunity to be transformed.

Julian Vayne


Coming up next…

Breaking Convention

– The Intermission –

14th August

You are invited to join other psychedelic-curious people at this unique day of talks. Our focus this year is very much on ethics, especially in relation to indigenous reciprocity and psychedelic capitalism. News of scientific research comes direct from the source, courtesy of a couple of luminaries from Imperial College London. We are honoured to host a lecture from Robin Carhart-Harris, Founder and Visiting Professor of Imperial’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, in his last public appearance before moving to America, and we are very pleased to welcome David Erritzoe, their Clinical Director, who will be telling us of their current and future research.

We start the day with the words and powerful presence of Don Eugenio Lopez Carilloo (Uru Muile), a Mara’akame in the Wixarika Laguna community, accompanied by Eusebio Lopez and Rodrigo Rurawe. We at Breaking Convention acknowledge the gratitude we owe to all those people who have kept the knowledge and practices of plant medicines alive for so long, in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Also on our stage will be several people with expertise and experience in the field of ethical engagement with psychedelics; from Canada, Andrea Langlois (activism and indigenous rights), and from closer to home our own Alexander Beiner (psychedelic capitalism) and Ashleigh Murphy-Beiner (ethics of the therapeutic process). Timmy Davis, of CDPRG, speaks about their current campaign for rescheduling psilocybin. There will be an in-depth panel discussion around these areas of ethical consideration.

https://www.breakingconvention.co.uk/events.html

Review – Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair

For regular readers of this blog, it will hardly be surprising that I approached Dr Vanessa Sinclair’s new book with both excitement and high expectations. In my own writing (especially The Heretic’s Journey), I have been keen to explore how the methods of artistic creativity can be used by the magician as a means for mining the depths of the self.

Over the past decade or so, it has felt that many occultists have rejected psychological models of magic in favour of more traditionalist cosmologies that promise both historic roots and thorough methodology. In response to the postmodern, disposable approach of Chaos Magic such seekers are forthright in their critique of the “pop”, lightweight nature of the insights offered and question their ability to leverage lasting change.

In marked contrast to the surface level reflections that the psychological model can be prone to, Vanessa Sinclair’s work provides a necessary and significant counterweight. This work gives us a vital and re-energised perspective on how the insights of psychoanalytic thinking, language and artistic expression can have true transformative power and be:

 “…a generative way of working with and through unconscious material and processes; cutting through ingrained systems of belief and oppression in order to attain new insights, ways of being and modes of becoming in the world.”

As I approached this book my expectations were already high, I was aware of Vanessa’s role as a visual artist, a practicing Psychoanalyst and co-convener of many excellent conferences focused on art, the occult and psychoanalysis. The breadth of her work and vision is nicely encapsulated here

In this book, Sinclair makes skilled use of Jacques Lacan’s expanded re-visioning of scansion as not merely a marker of poetic meter and emphasis, but rather scansion is a study in the disruptive and punctuating power of creativity. Sinclair invites us to a panoramic overview of modern art and culture; the vastness of her view can at times feel dizzying in its breadth but it is masterful in the vision that it captures. Scansion is a bold invitation to “new ways of seeing ourselves, one another and society…in a state of perpetual destruction and creation.” (p27)

We are treated to a pacey but theoretically engaging whistle stop tour through the history of modern art that sees a potent synchronicity between the advent of the Kodak’s hand-held camera the “Brownie” and the birth of Psychoanalysis at the dawn of the 20th century. Our ability as individuals to perceive, capture and display images reflects a new autonomy that mirrors the powerful tools espoused by Freud for accessing the mysteries of the self.

The captured image offers us a “slice” of reality that often holds dimensions of the unconscious that shed new light on our realities. Vanessa’s analysis of this rich timeline demonstrates the disruptive power that sparks of inspiration can having in cutting through centralized control and orthodoxy. The stabbing brush strokes of Van Gough, the stark cut-out images of Matisse and the surreal “readymade” objects of Marcel Duchamp all challenge any attempt to create a boundary between the art that we create and the intuitive way of viewing the whole of our lives. 

The symbiotic relationship between art and the birth of psychoanalysis comes to full fruit in the work of the surrealists. The creative genius of artists such as Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington made overt use of their dream lives, the unconscious and techniques of automatic writing and free association to bypass the psychic censor and plumb the depths of being. Things then come full circle as Lacan seeks to incorporate the methods of the surrealists within his clinical practice much to the distress of his more staid contemporaries. Sinclair provides helpful insight in noting the way in which the potency of the unconscious disrupts any attempts to control or create new orthodoxies. When conformity and normalization begin, the energy of the cut will not be far behind!

Marcel Duchamp with a Readymade

The surrealist use of mirrors and dream-states in their work often reflected a deep fascination with the Double. This doppelganger-double as a reflection of the self often disrupts the encrusted certainties of our ego so that new realms can be explored. Sinclair introduces us to the gender fluid work of Pierre Molinier whose photomontage evoked the complex, overlapping and multiple nature of the self. Such work significantly inspired Breyer P-Orridge and we can see the way in which such “existential playfulness” not only informed their pandrogeny work but also the jarring sonic cut-ups found in the early Industrial noisescapes of Throbbing Gristle and Psychick TV.

Vanessa provides us with an insightful perspective on the heady mash-up between culture and occulture. The spirit of the cut-up and surrealism was manifested potently within the creative hot-house of the Beat Generation (especially Gysin and Burroughs) who in turn famously helped shape David Bowie’s approach to song writing. This is not a “how to” book of occult techniques, rather it is a deeply magical work in reflecting on how seismic change works within the internal world so as to send shock waves through an often stagnant culture.

Throbbing Gristle, not ones for stagnation

The magic of the cut is a magic that is profoundly embodied. Sinclair highlights Freud’s view that it is the ego-body through which we first experience the world. The magic of art and analysis invites us to deconstruct and cut-through the constraints of normalization and conditioning in order to recover the whole body sensual liberty of an earlier polymorphous perversity. This decidedly queer territory. The gender focused works of Val Denham, the post-human performance art of Stelarc and wider trends in modern primitivism all point to a more fluid and engaged relationship with our flesh and the impact that our transformative experiments can have on the psyche. 

Sinclair’s book skillfully demonstrates the importance of the cut, in its various forms, as a potent approach to transformation for the magician to explore:

“The cut is another royal road to the unconscious. It allows us to dislocate and derail the narrative, so that we may understand ourselves and our past in a different light and rewrite our future in a new way; a way in which we desire to be, rather than the way we are predestined to be based on our histories, families and societies.”  

Highly recommended.

Steve Dee

Buy Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair (Routledge 2020)


Coming up next

Julian is teaching online magic with Treadwell’s Books and has also released a new course on the Deep Magic teaching site: First Steps in Magic.

In this course you’ll encounter the magic of the elemental powers of Air, Fire, Water and Earth through practice, ritual, journal work and guided meditations. You’ll learn how to cultivate the corresponding Four Powers of the Magician; To Know, To Will, To Dare and To Keep Silent. In addition to providing you with a comprehensive training program First Steps in Magic invites you to do things your own way and to develop your unique magical creativity. This course is available at a discounted price for a limited time. Click here for details.

On Sunday 25th April Nikki will be co-presenting an online workshop with Dave Lee on The Structure of Psychedelic Ceremony, click here for details.