Do you believe in magic?

Happy belated Halloween!

I’ve just returned home from a family holiday in Barcelona staying within sight of the magnificent Sagrada Familia. Over the previous 25 years I’ve seen this remarkable building grow, having visited it several times (once with Rodney Orpheus during a particularly dramatic electrical storm) . It’s quite something to encounter such a multi-generational project, a fitting setting to reflect on ideas of ancestors and families.

 

Upon my return to Britain I’d been asked to speak and MC an evening of talks at Real Magic, part of the Do you believe in magic? exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This was a delightful way to spend my birthday, with over 720 people attending. The evening featuring wonderful presentations from speakers Esther Eidinow, Kurt Lampe, Vikki Carr and Ronald Hutton. Do you believe in magic? is a very engaging exploration of the occult and it’s relationship with science and religion, do go along to see it if you have an opportunity.

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Mind manifesting in the Enlightenment Gallery at Bristol Museum

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Ronald Hutton and me chatting before his magnificent presentation on The Wheel of the Year.

 

Here’s the text of my talk that evening on Psychedelics, Shamanism and Magic – enjoy!

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We live in interesting times, one sign of which is perhaps the renewed engagement by academia and museums with the subject of magic. We have interdisciplinary conferences, most recently Trans-States at the University of Northampton, bringing together magical practitioners, artists and academics. The Victoria & Albert, Ashmolean and now Bristol Museums are working to widen the cultural conversation about what have often been excluded or even forbidden aspects of the human experience.

Tonight I’ll be speaking about an aspect of the human experience which has, until quite recently, remained occult, hidden, and even forbidden, namely the use of psychedelic drugs.

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witches and alchemists

The role of mysterious substances is deeply embedded in the iconography of western magic. Where would the witch be without her bubbling cauldron, or the alchemist without the arcane paraphernalia of their laboratory? In European herbalism correspondences between plants and astrological forces informed diagnosis and treatment. Malevolent witches were imagined by some to make use of poisonous plants; henbane, datura and deadly nightshade. Scattered references in the grimoires of ceremonial magic suggest the use of mind-altering incenses. 

While ongoing research gathers together these fragments of our indigenous tradition, it is primarily through the encounter between European culture and the peoples of the New World that the modern story of psychedelic substances emerges.

The term psychedelic ‘literally mind manifesting’, was coined in 1956 by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmand in conversation with writer Aldous Huxley to refer to a particular class of drugs. Their principal effect is to radically transform awareness, inducing a state of consciousness with some very curious, some might even say magical properties. The word Osmand coined was first applied to the effects of a  cactus.

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Classic psychedelic people and plants

The peyote cactus has been used for over 5000 years by communities in the Americas. The principle psychedelic alkaloid in peyote is mescaline, isolated and identified by western chemists in 1897, and first synthesized in 1918. Two other cacti also containing mescaline are used in the Americas for a variety of purposes which could be described as medical, religious and magical. Mescaline can include visionary phenomena, synesthesia-like effects where music might be perceived as visual patterns as well as evoking a range of very profound feelings including personal insight, euphoria and peak mystical experience. The effects of mescaline, like all psychedelics, are highly responsive to what has become known as ‘set and setting’ that is the mindset of the person taking the substance and the setting or environment in which the drug is consumed. Ritual specialists use ceremony to curate the set and settings for specific purposes, such as divination or healing. While these practitioners use various words to describe their work and social role their practice is often labelled as  ‘shamanism’. Shamanism is a complex and contested term which some feel should be limited to the Siberian and central Asian areas from which it derives. For others, the word has a broader pan-cultural use and indicates a certain style of what we could call ‘magical’ practice that often includes interactions with spirits and the use of altered or ‘ecstatic’ states.

In some shamanic traditions these ecstatic states are induced by practices such as long periods in darkness or solitary mediation, or through the use of drumming or chanting. All these methods are effective but psychedelic substances provide one of the most reliable ways of inducing ecstatic states and perhaps for that reason are central to many of the shamanic traditions of the Americas. This doesn’t only mean states that are pleasurable, though they may be. The etymology of the word ‘ecstasy’ points to a feeling of being ‘outside of ourselves’, to be ‘out of one’s mind’. In the psychedelic state we are propelled outside of our usual way of thinking into a form of cognition that is rich and strange.

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Mind the drugs

We can see this change in these two brain scans made during research in 2014 at Imperial College London, using the psychedelic psilocybin found in magic mushrooms and also used in New World Shamanism. On the left we see the brain in it’s ‘default mode network’ state. This arrangement is, in some respects, our sense of self, our egoic identity, the pattern that consciousness habitually adopts when we are alone, ruminating on the past and thinking about the future. The right hand image shows the same brain on psilocybin. We see that the self-identity pattern is turned down and novel connections between previously discrete systems in the brain emerge. We remain conscious and aware but our perception of reality is dramatically transformed.  To use the language of shamanism – we might take flight and soar over an innerworld landscape, looking down from this new vantage point to gain new insights about the world. We might encounter spirits such as ancestors or mythological figures. We have a sense of going on a journey, a trip.

On our return to everyday awareness we can bring these insights with us, leading to transformations in our social relationships and effects such as the healing of sickness. In the psychedelic state we experience the deep truth that all things are interconnected or, as the Hermetic magicians would say; ‘As Above, So Below’. 

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Beastly rites

In the early 20th century the use of psychedelic substances, began to filter into European culture. Aleister Crowley dosed the audience at his Rites of Eleusis, a series of publicly performed rituals,  with mescaline. His rituals, which included music, clouds of incense and epic poetry, were performed in London in 1910 making them one of the first attempts to formulate a ceremonial setting in which to ingest a psychedelic sacrament outside of the Americas. Crowley’s rituals can also claim to be the first psychedelic art-happening. In this sense Crowley’s rites were the forerunner of the Be-In’s of the beat generation and the LSD enhanced concerts of the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind.

The trickle of interest from artists, medics and researchers exploring mescaline became a flood in the mid 20th century with the discovery by Albert Hoffman in 1943 of LSD  Hoffman’s new psychedelic substance initiated seismic changes in culture. These included the development of the rock music festival which aimed to provide a cultural container for the psychedelic state which had suddenly become available to thousands of people.

Within European occulture of the late 20th century, while psychedelics informed the cultural context, they were not central to the emerging esoteric styles of Wicca and neo-paganism. However they were enthusiastically integrated into the practice of some occultists, notably those influenced by the work of Crowley. 

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Peyote circle and Castlemorton festival

A third wave of psychedelic exploration occurred in the late 20th century as a novel chemical, closely related to mescaline, began to hit the headlines; MDMA or ecstasy. The development of the rave, like the emergence of the music festival decades earlier, provided a setting in which the psychedelic state could be held. The emerging rhythms of acid house music (a term arguably coined by the occultist Genesis P.Orridge) matched those used by other ‘shamanic’ psychedelic communities such as Native American Church.

The Native American Church developed in the late 19th century in North America. The central sacrament of the Church is peyote consumed during an all night vigil which features singing, drumming, prayer and other ritual activities. The Native American Church flourished because one of the effects of psychedelics is healing. In the context of the plains dwelling First Nations people this healing was a response to the genocidal damage caused by European colonialism. In particular many Native Americans sought to self-medicate their pain with whisky and this lead to much suffering. The peyote ceremony had the power to help people see things from a different perspective and this often led to them stopping drinking. The medicine of the ritual; that is the intention of the participant, the structure of the ceremony, and the psychedelic cactus – or more succinctly the ‘set, setting and substance’ came together to effect radical personal and social transformation.

Humphry Osmand and his colleague Abram Hoffer attended a Native American Church peyote ceremony in 1958 and this inspired them to wonder if LSD could be used to help people escape their additions. Their informed speculation was correct and, until the advent of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, many hundreds of people underwent successful psychedelic therapy using LSD.

In Britain, one might suggest that the emerging popularity of  MDMA served to address the cultural wounds caused by post-industrial dislocation. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher, mass unemployment, the ever present threat of nuclear war and the miners strike. The emerging traveller communities and rave culture came under censure in much the same way that the Native American Church had done in the USA. The difference was that without an identifiable ‘shamanism’ or indigenous psychedelic tradition there was little possibility of legally defending the right to party, the sacred music defined in the UK Criminal Justice bill of 1994 as  “…sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was driven underground. 

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Healing the harm

But the times are changing. Whether we consider the remarkable transformations that a suitable set, setting and psychedelic substance can generate as magic, shamanism or science matters very little. For these mind-manifesting materials are being re-discovered as allies in healing a range of illnesses that are present at epidemic levels in our culture.

Today MDMA is being used in Bristol within licensed settings to help people overcome chronic alcohol addiction. In the USA it is being licensed to treat Post-traumatic stress disorder. Other psychedelics such as cannabis, ayahuasca and psilocybin are also being recognized as having potent healing effects on conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to autoimmune illnesses. The current wave of research, often described as the Psychedelic Renaissance, a term coined by Dr Ben Sessa who works in Bristol doing MDMA therapy, includes studies on the potential of psychedelics to aid creative problem solving, to helping us face death with equanimity, and to develop ways to resolve interpersonal and social conflicts.

To the Mexican Curandera or the Siberian Shaman the discovery that ecstatic trance carries with it magical transformative potential isn’t news, but for European culture this is a radical change. For European, and by extension much of Euro-American culture was disconnected from the use of  substances that could safely induce ecstatic states when the great Temple of Eleusis closed in the 4th century AD. 

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Mystery trend

Eleusis was the principle Mystery initiation of the Ancient World sacred to the goddess Demeter. In her temple 3000 initiates at a time would experience was many regard as the core elements of the shamanic process. They would undertake ritual purification, they would make a pilgrimage, they would fast and, crucially, they would ingest a sacred potion before descending into a vast darkened temple full of drumming and chanting. There they would face their fears and emerge into the light for a party to celebrate their rebirth. This annual ritual went on for thousands of years with its participants being drawn from all ranks of society. This shared psychedelic experience of crisis and rebirth shaped the pre-Christian pagan world. After Eleusis and the loss of the shamanic psychedelic experience European culture, one might suggest, started to behave just like an addict, rampaging across the globe in search of tranquilizers like opium and stimulants like tobacco and cocaine. Later that culture would give rise to two World Wars, the creation of weapons of mass destruction, and the poisoning of the biosphere.

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Connected future

While we celebrate the return of the magical to academia, to museums and to a wider cultural setting we may also like to consider that the return of the psychedelic state to mainstream cultural as part of the same movement. A movement to value again the importance of the subjective, the magical and the ecstatic if we are to successfully cultivate our individual wellbeing and find better ways to live together. To find a medicine in these difficult times that heals us and, as they say in the Native American Church, all our relations.

Julian Vayne

 

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Do you believe in magic? is open until 19th April 2020 at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Pieces of the Witch

In my most recent book The Heretic’s Journey: Spiritual Freethinking for Difficult Times, I spent time exploring how the Surrealist movement embodied a radical form of self-exploration in their philosophy and the artistic expression for which they became so famed. What follows in a short excerpt and ritual exercise from the book for you to play with:

Whichever media the Surrealists worked in (Painting, poetry, drawing) one of the consistent themes that runs throughout the School, is their desire to work more overtly with the unconscious aspects of self. We have already considered the prevalence of dreams and dream-like states in the work of occult inspired artists such as Ernst and Carrington and the way that their work often used the juxtaposition of strange, jarring images as a way of articulating often pre-verbal themes that emerge from the deepest dimensions of being.

The Surrealists were renowned for their inventiveness in developing a vast range of artistic techniques and strategies for seeking access to the creative dimensions of the unconscious self. This involved everything from relief rubbings (“frottage”), automatic painting, the creation of dream resume and the artistic use of old parlour games such as Exquisite Corpse. One of these techniques that the surrealists utilised to great effect was that of collage.

Collage (from the French coller, “to glue”) is a technique of assemblage in which the artist brings together a number of different media and pulls them out of their original context in order to create a new reality in which radically different ideas and textures can overlap, contrast and interact in the eye of the viewer. Historically while examples of collage can be found in 10th century Japan and in the Cathedrals of Medieval Europe, in relation to its use in Modern art, it is generally agreed that it was primarily developed in the works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso from 1912 onwards.

Max Ernst’s artistic expression was hugely innovative. He is credited with the invention of the frottage technique and also made use of other approaches such as decalcomania (pressing paint between two surfaces). While Ernst worked in a wide range of media his work with collage is especially inspiring. In works such as his surrealist novel Une Semaine De Bonte: A Surrealist Novel in Collage (1934) we witness his exploration of the jarring and animalistic dimensions of self.  As Ernst himself observed regarding his often absurd combination of images, objects and text, they “provoked a sudden intensification of the visionary faculties in me and brought forth an elusive succession of contradictory images… piling up on each other with the persistence and rapidity which are peculiar to love memories and visions of half sleep.” (Quoted in Ernst by Ian Turpin pg. 7)

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Cutting things up with Uncle Max

Within his collage and his work more generally, Ernst repeatedly utilizes the symbol of the bird as a representation of himself. He named this avian manifestation of himself “Loplop” who he saw as the “superior of the birds”. When viewed through a more occult lens, I am struck by the potential parallels between these images and the concept of the Witch’s familiar or the animal aspect of the self, referred to as the “fetch” in Norse soul lore.  Via its window into the darker, unconscious aspects of self, collage provides a means through which strange and even macabre images can provide insight to our own process of self-understanding.

Exercise: The Witch’s Collage

I will state at the outset that there are a myriad of ways of working magically with collage, and I offer this exercise as but one example (albeit a creative and tested one!) for intrepid explorers to utilise. Unlike their more randomized Postmodern cousin Cut-ups, collages seek to work more deliberately with aspects of the unconscious from the outset of the artist’s project of creation. Hopefully having begun a process of reflection regarding your heretical inspirations, as we begin this activity, the images, symbols and colour associations will begin to bubble to the surface!

To provide you with a bit of structure you might want to follow some of the following steps:

  1. Find the images and symbols that you feel capture the essence of your journey into heretical freethinking. Don’t be weighed down by the expectations of others! If cartoon heroes or industrial noise musicians do it for you include them alongside more standard spiritual symbology.
  2. Assemble art stuff. At a minimum you will need scissors, glue, pens and pencils. Coloured paper of differing textures work and you may want to incorporate pieces of text. Your imagination is the only real limit here! Make sure you have a large piece of paper or card (A3 or bigger) so that you have enough space to stick your stuff onto.
  3. Find a space that you feel comfortable in. Ideally you should be able to spread your images and materials out so that you can see the possible directs that your collage can take. Personally I like having some music on to inspire me and I usually need a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour to let the collage take shape. Having a time limit can also be helpful for this specific exercise in that provides an end point rather than having to struggle with that sense of not knowing when you’ve done enough.
  4. Like the approach of sleep, light hypnosis and some meditative states this work will be best approached with a sense of playfulness and a desire to not take it too seriously. Let your eyes move over your assembled materials and images and simply begin. You can’t get this wrong and your images and textures will build up during the duration of the work.
  5. Often our results can surprise us. What I love about collage is the way in which it can have various pockets of activity and interest. Our eyes may be drawn to one thematic cluster only to realize that there’s something really interesting in another part of our work.
  6. When our collage is completed, we can put it to any number of ritual uses. I often place mine in the corner of the house where I meditate and do ritual work. This allows me to come back to it repeatedly and spot emerging themes.
  7. Given the connection between collage, the unconscious and the realm of dreams, one interesting practice could involve placing your collage under your bed or pillow prior to sleep. Spend some time before sleep meditating on your collage and let the interplay of images and textures enhance your nocturnal journeying!
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Here’s one I made earlier 🙂

Steve Dee


Events update…

  • There are still a few places available for Julian’s workshop on Sigil Magic in London on the 27th of July at Treadwell’s Books.
  • You can also join Julian for a Magical Words workshop at The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall on Saturday 31st of August.

Details of both workshops can be found HERE.

 

Breaking Convention: 16-18 August 2019, London, UK

Nikki and Julian will be at Breaking Convention, Europe’s largest conference on psychedelic consciousness. This is set to be an epic event. As ever Breaking Convention brings together under one roof scientists, medics, artists, shamans, and many more at one of the most intellectually rich and inspirational gatherings in the world. Highly recommended! Book your tickets HERE.

 

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Nikki and Julian will be running Deep Magic camps and retreats in 2020, bringing together freestyle shamanic techniques and wisdom from indigenous medicine traditions. To find out more please ping us a message letting us know a little about your spiritual practice and experience with altered states of awareness. These will be intimate, powerful, accessible and transformation events. We hope you will join us as we go deep into the magic! Ahoy!

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Queer Magic in Theory and Practice

The relationship between magic and queer is something that Steve Dee and I have explored in multiple articles on this blog (do a search for ‘queer’ to find them). Recently I had the opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice during my Queering Magic workshop at Treadwell’s Books, London.

The word queer relates, among other things, to notions of sexuality, gender and identity. More broadly it can be taken to suggest liminality, uncertainty, curiosity and the disruption of (apparently) fixed systems, through to what Freud would call the ‘uncanny’ and others might describe as ‘the weird’ (or wyrd).

With such a broad and morphing constellation of meanings it’s interesting to attempt to articulate these, and at the workshop that’s what we did, both in writing and through colour and form.

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Queer connects us to mythical and historic figures; bisexual deities such as Pan, the Divine Androgyne of Hermetic mysticism, and our queer ancestors from Aleister Crowley to Tove Jansson. Identifying these allies makes a real difference when it comes to claiming our own identity as queer people and especially as queer occultists.

Seeking historical exemplars helps us recognize that we stand in a lineage of queer folk. Knowing this history helps challenge the view that wyrd-kids-today are adopting non-binary identity simply as a fashion statement. That was the kind of thinking behind Clause 28, a bit of British law from the 1980s designed to stop regional governmental bodies “…intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any State funded school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. (Those who find this kind of repressive legislation repulsive should know that they are not alone. This law was repealed by the then new Scottish Parliament in 2000 as one of their first legislative acts, and in England and Wales in 2003.)

Rather than something ‘new’ growth of the queer in Western culture represents a recognition that human identity, social roles, gender and sexuality have actually always been multiple and complex. The queer isn’t something original, as much as a recognition of what has actually always been the case. Supporters of this increasingly visible culture (like me) enjoying pointing out that many other societies (notably those of many Native American nations) include much richer, often more fluid, vocabularies for describing gender and sexual identity. Physical gender is a continuum or field of possibilities, sexual preference or social role even more so. This is why I like queer, it’s a useful umbrella term which reminds us to keep in mind – or in ‘play’ as Jacques Derrida might say – the mutability and flexibility of human nature. This isn’t necessarily a rejection of words like ‘gay’ or ‘male’ but rather queer acts as a reminder that these labels are convenient, contingent fictions and subject, like all things, to flux.

Magic, according to Crowley in 777, is ‘energy tending to change’ and more famously “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Thus the relationship of magic, change and queer(ing) is apparent at a deep esoteric theoretical level as well as in the actual lives of many occultists.

As we explore the meanings of queer we find it in contact with many other words of magic. Take for example the etymology of the word ‘witch‘. Grimm suggests that *weik- “to curve, bend” and *weg’h- “to move” (in a “mysterious” way) are concepts at the root of ‘witchcraft’. Such an imaged etymology of ‘witch’ contains ideas of bending or twisting both as demonstration of mysterious control (‘the witch bent men to her will’) or a turning away from the right/true/moral (ie socially acceptable) path and instead following of the a ‘road less traveled’ or a ‘crooked way’. ‘Witch’ exhibits Similar negative associations of spoiling or going wrong that have been linked to queer. The potentially transgressive, antinomian and outsider qualities of ‘witch’ are echoed in ‘queer’ in that both words have been reclaimed, recuperated and re-imagined not as epithets of denigration but instead identities of celebration, empowerment, transformation and resistance.

In a mythological context the ‘cut-up’ deities of Baphomet and Abraxas can also be considered pretty queer.  These spirits have obscure backstories and yet, especially in the case of Baphomet, a wild proliferation of forms, imbued with multiple meanings. ‘Baphomet’, like the ‘queer’ is a placeholder for an uncertain, powerful, morphing ‘energy tending to change’. At Treadwell’s we decorated our ritual space with Baphomets generated through the ‘picture consequences’ or ‘exquisite corpse’ method. Here are a few of the chimeric beings we spawned:

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Queer Truth is mutable and multiple.

There are of course those folks who, for whatever reason are unsure of all this queerness around magic. A few esoteric writers, typically of the probably-gay-but-unable-to-admit it type are hostile to queer cultures. Heteronormativity is writ large in the worlds of polarity structured occultures (such as Wicca) and also Medicine Path groups (where the language of familial heteronormativity often appears in ceremonial songs) – but this is changing. (By Medicine Community I mean folk using psychedelics such as ayahuasca, peyote and other sacraments as part of their spiritual process, often in a way informed by ‘native’ practices.)

Wicca has proliferated into many forms where queer identity is welcomed, celebrated and included. There are indications too that in Medicine Community contexts where previously there was only a relative mono-culture of male-female tropes, a richer linguistic ecology is developing. We can see how people wrestle with the boundary crossing experience that ayahuasca and other psychedelic drugs induce, sometimes in cultural settings where diverse sexual identity doesn’t necessarily get acknowledged. For more on this check the work of Clancy Cavnar for instance this article and this presentation.

Back at Treadwell’s, part of our practice was to collectively offer our thanks to the artist, queer icon and Golden Dawn initiate Pamela Coleman Smith. ‘Pixie’, as she was affectionately known to her friends, lived in the Cornish town of Bude where I’d previously done magical work intended to re-ignite interest in her phenomenal oeuvre.  Following recent repairs to her former home Treadwell’s was able to acquire Pixie’s original fireplace. This charming ovoid hearth now stands in the basement of one of the leading bookshops and venues for the sharing of magical practice in Britain. A fitting place of power to house this magical object. Our group took time to appreciate Pamela Coleman Smith, the woman who designed the best-selling classic modern tarot. A woman who lived for many years with her female companion. A person, I’m pleased to report, increasingly recognized and celebrated as a key figure of the Western magical tradition. (Check out this wonderful new collection of writings on, and art by, Pamela Coleman Smith.)

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Fireside conversation with Pamela Coleman Smith

Whether we wish to claim an identity such as ‘queer’ for ourselves or not my feeling is that occultists of all stripes can benefit from an exploration of these ideas. For those who apply the word to themselves and their work, seeking out mythic and historical allies, and recovering, creating and honouring their stories is vital work. For the queer spaces in culture are not themselves inevitable or irrevocable. For this is ‘energy tending to change’ – it is all those ongoing acts of witness, of rebellion, or bravery and of ‘queer truth’ that act together to create and maintain this space. A queer space in culture where the diversity of human experience can be shared and valued rather than repressed and feared.

Thanks to all those that came to the workshop and respect to all those queer wyrd people wherever and whenever they may be!

Julian Vayne

A few more thoughts on ritual process, magic and queer here

 

PS I’m doing another workshop at Treadwells in May on psychogeography, hope you can join me for some magic in the streets of London. 🙂

The Toxicity of Magic

Making generalizations about magic is always perilous. 

To speak about magic is to speak of the almost the entirety of humanity’s attempts to understand and explore both science and religion. What are these things? Why are they like this? Can I influence these things (including myself) so that they might behave differently? To do magic is to set sail on an adventure of exploration and understanding regarding the nature of things and the (possible) means of causation.

When we reflect on the broad categories of theurgy and thaumaturgy, we can see that magic seeks to provide us both with creative ways of wrestling with the questions of theological meaning and also our human attempts to exert some control over our experience of material existence. When I view my own journey as a magician I can see a variety of stages in which I have used creative ritual and occult technologies (trance, evocation, divination etc.) to engage with a number of these dilemmas.

While I have spent significant amounts of time working with the type of theological preoccupations shared by many forms of contemporary Neo-Paganism, if I was trying to locate any common thread between the techniques and traditions that I have explored, I have largely been preoccupied by the psychological alchemy that magic can exert when we attempt to use it to engage with the unknown, the mysterious and what Freud called “the crushing superiority of nature”.

It’s fair to say that I take my magic with a fair dose of existentialism, and for me the sense of agency created by occult work provides me with a degree of leverage when seeking to create meaning in the world. Whether via the drama of ritual or the creative mind-set of the initiatory imagination, magic helps me both embrace the strength of my passions and also the possibility of managing chaos so that the likelihood of being overwhelmed is reduced.

Orthodox believers are often perplexed or horrified by the ways of the magician. We not only consciously revel in the pursuit of power and agency, but we often engage with personifications of death, impermanence and misrule. The magician is often the one who while valuing the light and the conscious, recognizes that the brutality of life also demands an engagement with the dark, the hidden and the potentially destructive. We see these forces both within ourselves and at work in the world. These are dangerous forces that threaten to overwhelm us and yet for the initiate, we respond to a deep hunch that we need to engage with this material. What matters in such work is the dose we take.

The dose makes the poison” (sola dosis facit venenum) is an axiom credited to the 16th century scientist/alchemist Paracelsus and alludes to his idea that the amount of something is the critical factor in determining its risk to us. Basically this  means that a substance can only produce the harmful effect associated with its toxic properties if it reaches a high enough level within a given body or system. Therefore risk is influenced by a whole range of variable factors such as our personal constitutions and our experience with a given substance.  

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Paracelsus – Awesome alchemist, great taste in hats

When I reflect upon my spiritual and magical practice, I can see direct parallels between this perspective and the way in which I use my explorations of ritual, ecstatic states and divination as a way of more effectively managing my own struggle to engage with the uncertainty and anxiety of being alive.

Life throws all sorts of crazy shit at us: the reliable fails, we get ill, people die, politicians make hugely unwise decisions; you get the idea, this list could go on for a very long time. As we try to create a semblance of order and stability in our lives, the variable and the unknown encroach upon our efforts and then things fall apart. As much as we try to live peaceful lives, the shock of the new and the unexpected induces a whole flood of fight, flight and freeze responses as we try to make sense of the traumas that blind-side us.

While my own pursuit of the “Great Work” of magic is inevitably focused on creating an increased sense of agency in the face of such challenges, for me this is rarely about beseeching prayer and attempts to defy the laws of science. For me, it is more likely to be about a confrontation of my fears within the (relatively) contained setting of the ritual chamber or circle. This is the work of the initiate as we consciously seek to work with a potentially toxic aspect of reality so as to build a degree of resilience or even immunity.

Such work can be profoundly alchemical, in that in working with our fears and wrathful aspects of reality, we can consciously create tension and induce a profitable form of psycho-spiritual resistance. There are some parallels between this work and Hegel’s dialectical process. To introduce a challenging concept (e.g. our fear of death) also asks that we acknowledge its apparent opposite (the joy of experiencing life’s pleasures) and then via the tension between these polar extremes we can begin to synthesize our own unique resolution.  The great mystic Jacob Bohme saw this dialectical tension within the very Godhead itself and the value that bitterness (Grimmigkeit) had in generating creativity and change.

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Working with tensions

Overdose is always possible and part of maturity on the path is knowing when to reduce our intake and ground ourselves via friends, food and more everyday concerns. Magic can be both upsetting and disturbing; the holism that it advocates usually demands the confrontation of aspects of self that we would often prefer to ignore. Most magical paths are designed to give the unconscious an almighty stir so that we are forced to wake from our sleep-states. There are easier hobbies out there if all we are seeking is distraction, but for those of us touched by this initiatory need-fire, this is a work not easily relinquished.

Steve Dee

 

Truth, Lies & Magick

I’ve been reading Gary Lachman’s new book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump which set me thinking about the nature of ‘fake news’ and the complex relationship in magic between the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) about the world, and the world itself.

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There are hundreds of great examples of how things that are not ‘true’ lead to real and ‘true’ outcomes. In mathematics we have crazy concepts that never-the-less still generate real and useful answers, imaginary numbers are perhaps the most obvious example. Then there are all those imaginary lines we draw in the globe for the purposes of navigation and communication, and for deciding which day it is. Such imaginary lines include the (in some respects quite recent) notion of national boarders which of course are a major concern in the politics of America First and Brexit.

Here are a few thoughts on how things that are not ‘true’ can indeed manifest as real things in the world. Not through a naive New Thought solipsism (the kind of thing usually marketed as ‘prosperity consciousness’) but rather through the multiplex processes of culture and the imagination.

One of my favourite tales that I didn’t mention – about the relationship between truth, lies and magick – comes in the form of a chess playing Turk. This was a (fake) robot automaton from the 18th century which (it is said) inspired Charles Babbage and more broadly the industrial revolution. Check out ‘How a magician helped the industrial revolution’ by Gregg Tob for this amazing, and instructive, story.

Details of the December event at The October Gallery with the author of Dark Star Rising and yours truly coming soon.

Julian Vayne

A Magician in Residence at The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

For a while, before the office opens, I’m sitting in a hollow on the cliffs, overlooking the sea. I plan to meditate and sing and do some yoga for an hour or so. This will ensure that I’ll be in the right frame of mind for work. Below me is Boscastle harbour. I am sitting on the eastern side of that long inlet, a snaking chasm of rock, half barred by two gently curving sea walls (built in the 16th century). Behind this there are a few boats, some sand and seaweed. On the seaward side there are great cliffs. In undercut hollows, carved by the restless waves, blow-holes form, squirting jets of spray back over the rising tide. This is a deeply magical place, for me and many others. Boscastle is the beautiful, sometimes dangerous confluence of the River Valency and River Jordan. It is one of those deep wooded valleys (‘coombes’ we calls ’em in Devon) that are typical of the north Atlantic coastline. It is also the setting for the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, where for one week in June I was the ‘Magician in Residence‘.

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Beautiful Boscastle

The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic (MWM) is a collection that is locally adored and internationally recognized. If you’re not already familiar with the amazing range of things they do (from supporting international academic research, to commissioning new artworks) then please take some time to look around their online presence.

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Lurid old skool Baphomet

I’d been aware of the Museum for many years (if nothing else through those brilliantly lurid photos of Baphomet in occult coffee table books of the 1970s). But it wasn’t until fifteen or so years ago I went there for the first time. These days I’m closely involved with the Museum, including as Chair of The Friends of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, a registered charity that supports the museum, in particular with its mission to educate and engage people. One aspect of engagement is to encouraging people to visit spaces like MWM. Visiting museums, especially places of the quality of MWM, can be a powerful, authentic, moving experience. Sure you can see many items from the MWM collection using their online database. However the physical experience of walking down the path, towards the wild Cornish sea, turning right and there, nestled against the rock, is the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic – that embodied experience takes some beating!

MWM’s work includes supporting the increasing appreciation, in academia and wider culture, of the influence of occultism (as I mentioned here). They’ve recently loaned objects to some internationally important shows, such as Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution. There are the many ways in which the MWM collection is relevant to wider culture. One of my own interests in this field is in the social phenomena of witch hunting as a form of scapegoating. The way in which communities, of many different sorts, go about hunting and killing ‘witches’ says something very important to all of us. In order to understand, mitigate and perhaps transform our scapegoating behaviour, we have to understand how it happens. Collections such as that at MWM can directly help us do this by bringing us up close and personal with objects that are the anchors for stories of prejudice, misunderstanding and punishment. (You can see some examples of the educational resources I helped to create, enabling young people to explore these issues on the MWM website.  If you’re a teacher, especially of teenagers, you may like to check these out).

Inside MWM there are many wonderful things; the material traces of many expression of occulture. The galleries themselves are a cunning interplay of dark and secret with bold and well-lit spaces. The standard of presentation is second to none (and I’ve worked in many museums over the past 15 years). This excellent curation isn’t surprising given that museum director Simon Costin is something of a creative genius.

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Tasteful modern Baphomet

(Talking of Baphomets, it was also during this week that I helped transport a rather famous Baphomet mask from London to its new home at the Museum. But more of that later…)

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Baphomet, last seen in public on The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square

For my week in residency I got to hang out in the library. This is, as you might imagine, another wonderful space. There are wooden desks, a gigantic witches ball in the window to repel the evil eye, and many, many books. I set up my office here; runes, two decks of tarot cards, crystal ball, special magic A4 white paper for sigils, sage smudge, some magical pointy things from the Himalayas – and we are good to go!

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In residence

I’d imagined that I could spend much of the week writing and maybe doing a spot of research. In addition to an amazing range of books in the MWM library it houses hundreds of files containing everything from facsimile editions of Gerald Gardner’s original Book of Shadows, through to collections of obscure short-run occult ‘zines from the 1980s. However my research plan was not to be. Rather than reading the books I spent most of my time that week doing tarot readings for visitors.

This was both enjoyable and an honour. People often open up in a divination session and place their trust, to some degree, in the diviner. I encourage this, as an important benefit of having a reading is the confidential, candid, even confessional opportunity that this setting provides.

When people come to me for a reading I explain that I can’t divine the future with any great certainty. I usually joke that were this one of my special powers I’d divine six numbers, win the lottery and spend all my time on holiday. (Actually the problem with this analogy is I do generally to get to spend my time doing what I love, but anyhow…). Instead I explain that my role is primarily to work with clients to explore how things are for them, and to look at what possible futures and courses of action might emerge from their present circumstances. This makes the whole process about discovery; the reading becomes a space for mutual investigation and reflection. The querent is not the passive recipient of advice, but an active agent in their own narrative. For while there may be some circumstances where our options are limited. we do usually possess some degree of freedom; this realization is often a key outcome. Cultivating this awareness of freedom, in a realistic way, and exploring the options for change, are for me what tarot readings are all about.

Now I won’t lie, even within this broadly psychological paradigm of divination things with a distinctly parapsychological flavor do happen. For example, my usual practice is ask the querent to draw three cards. On the basis of these I begin a story, then together we explore how this might relate to their situation. Sometimes, especially when I’m on a roll and have been doing lots of readings over a short period of time, I say things in this opening section that the client responds to with surprise. ‘How could you have known that?’ they say. Then there are moments, perhaps halfway through reading (sometimes accompanied by a sense of having something speak through me, or some sense of ‘absence’) where a rush of words comes out. Again the querent may be impressed; I’ve perhaps articulated the problem we’ve been discussing in a radically new way that helps them see a totally new picture, or perhaps I’ve revealed how one character may be acting and what can be done to make things better. These intuitive insights may be surprising, including to me. But however spot on my words are I always bracket what I say. I explain that one reason we call this stuff ‘magic’ is because none of us (perhaps least of all magicians) really known how any of it works. I acknowledge that this is how things may appear in this moment, in this reading, but that the future is uncertain and new information and possibilities may well arise. I may be ‘inspired’ but I’m also quite clear that my impressions may be wrong or incomplete in any number of ways. Sure listen to the oracle, but take it all with a pinch of salt.

I’m pleased to say that I got really nice feedback from some of the folk I read for during my residency and I’m glad they found the sessions useful. For me whether a reading is heavy on the psychological exploration, or has significant parapsychological moments, isn’t what matters. What is important is that the consultation provides an opportunity to empower the querent; allowing them to find their own way in the world. This is the magic of it.

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In the magicians chair

An additional delight of this week was to be able to spend time with many of the members of my extended family, enjoying this magical landscape and each other’s company. (Which is why each morning on those rocks I gave thanks to the Great Spirit – whom I call Baphomet – for those lovely people and the magic in my life.)

I’ve  recorded a few thoughts towards the end of my residency about the role of the proverbial village witch on my Youtube channel too.

Many thanks to the wonderful people at the Museum for welcoming and supporting me during that week, and to all those people who came to see me over those days; may the royal road rise to meet you!

Blessed Be

Julian Vayne

PS Our next Deep Magic Retreat at St Nectan’s Glen will take place from 27th September-1st October 2018 For more details please visit our Facebook page.

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Labyrinth at Rocky Valley, where the river that runs through St.Nectan’s Glen meets the sea.

 

 

 

 

Schumacher College – Where Ecology and Spirituality Meet

Set in the South Devon countryside on the Dartington Hall Estate (famed as place of radical socialist ideas) stands Schumacher College. The College takes it name from the environmentalist, educator and ecomomist Ernst Schumacher, author of the ground breaking book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. This May I was invited by Andy Letcher (author of the seminal Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom) to teach a module on the MA in Spirituality and Ecology; my area of expertise being the history, theory and practice of British Paganism and occulture.

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Schumacher in the Summertime

The academic study of what is usually called ‘Western Esotericism’ has been growing apace over recent years. For instance, the vital role of magic in the work of many artists is today being recovered and celebrated in the academy (whereas mention of occultism was strictly forbidden within the prevailing materialist vocabulary of late 20th century artistic criticism). Meanwhile the relationship between esotericism and many other domains of culture are now seen as legitimate territory for scholarly engagement.

In teaching at Schumacher I was joining  an august list of former lecturers including  Fritjof CapraStanislav GrofJames LovelockLynn MargulisArne NaessRupert Sheldrake, StarhawkVandana Shiva, etc etc. This was a great honour especially since my qualifications are primarily those of esoteric practitioner and writer rather than those of academia. It was a residential week, so I was invited to stay in the beautiful college building and eat wonderful food, much of it grown and prepared by the students. Each day I would come into work, walking past a quote from Goethe, writ large at the college entrance: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

The week’s teaching began with a brief overview of British history, focusing on the previous 200 or so years. It’s hard to understand the emergence of British paganisms (such as Wicca, Thelema, Druidry, Chaos Magic et al) unless one appreciates something of the history of the British Empire and the social impact of the Industrial Revolution.

Thereafter we plunged into the story of various forms of pagan spirituality; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Thelema, Wicca and witchcraft, Druidry and, towards the end of the week, chaos magic, Discordianism and neo-shamanism.

Each day started with a seminar to provide context, explore origins, key concepts, characters and events.

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Fabulous history

As you can see from the (incomplete) diagram above, the general history of modern British paganism is deeply indebted to the Romantic movement. The Romantics initiated a reappraisal of all those groups of people considered inimicable to the then dominant (religious) discourse. The Romantics looked to the witches, the druids, the heathens and the magicians, re-imagining these groups in powerful ways; seen by some as standing against (repressive) Christian culture. They (witches, druids et al) were more authentic, more spiritual, more in touch with the land, more magical, more matrifocal etc etc than people are today (‘today’ being the 18th and 19th centuries). Thus the devils of the dominant religion become the heroes of the new.  And this process has a powerful magic in it. Druidry, for instance, is successfully re-imagined by the Romantics and antiquarians into inhabited reality. That is, there are people who start to call themselves ‘Druids’ and claim some form of lineage, spiritual or cultural connection with the Druids that Tacitus writes about. As this re-imagination unfolds polymorphously through time, making all kinds of twists and turns. Druidry becomes both a form of LARPing for Anglican ministers and an identity for protest (at Seahenge and Stonehenge) and for a sporting nation (at the Olympics and Paralympics).

Magical history is full of such wyrd transformations: one of my favorites being the way that Margaret Murray sacrifices her academic standing on the altar of Gerald Gardner’s (supposedly ancient) Wicca (by writing the Introduction to Gardner’s Witchcraft Today) and, in doing so, helps to give rise to an actual religion of pagan witchcraft. (A curious historical artefact observed by Wiccan practitioner and scholar Melissa Harrington.)

The afternoons at Schumacher were given over to practical exercises (from Hermetic pathworking through to eclectic-shamanic-style ritual). Through embodied practice I aimed to demonstrate that the techniques of imagination, of ceremony and of attention, that get grouped together as ‘magic’ actually underpin many (apparently non-magical). things. Identity, marketing, economics, religion, all pivot, not on the material stuff of the world, but primarily on our ideas about the world and ourselves. Therefore the fact that we can use these ‘magical’ approaches to stir up and change our awareness is deeply relevant to how culture happens, especially when we consider how our beliefs (our spirituality) relates to the communities and planet we inhabit (ecology). Magic also rests on the axiom ‘As Above, So Below’, or more generally that ‘everything is interconnected’. Such a world view is natural to the ecologist. With that in mind it is important to equip those studying ecology and related disciplines not only with ideas, but with embodied practices by which they can modify awareness so that this ‘holistic’ world-view becomes a deeply felt experience.

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At the Entrance to the Underworld, shrine space decorated by students on the Spirituality & Ecology MA programme.

Naturally I learnt lots as a teacher at Schumacher. One insight was a renewed appreciation of how the history of British occultism can initially appear like a tiny (irrelevant) scene, a cul-de-sac of culture. But dig a little deeper and it is soon becomes apparent that, not only does magic respond to and reflect wider culture, but it also acts to change it; often in far reaching ways. Another lesson was something I’m often reminded of when I teach magical techniques and that is this; the process of doing ritual, of creating ceremony, is a deeply human need. It’s a process which, for many people, is linked to experiences of orthodox religion and its associated oppressions, and so they (understandably) distrust it. But ritual need not be like this; empowering ourselves to understand and use this approach for purposes such as spiritual exploration, group bonding and social transformation, on our own terms, is essential.

My heartfelt thanks to Andy Letcher and the staff at Schumacher, and to the students for being up for everything from constructing the Qabalah from tarot cards through to rune singing and the gnostic pentagram rite! I look forward to my next visit 😀

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Exploring the Tarot and the Tree

Use this link find out more about the MA in Spiritual and Ecology.

Julian Vayne