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.

image1527010559859

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.

paganism11

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.

DSC_1703

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 😀

img_20180522_175801_536.jpg

Exploring the Tarot and the Tree

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

Julian Vayne

Divine Androgyne (Part 3): Monstrous Alchemy

The impact of Queer experience on the ideal of androgyny is a truly disruptive one. Gone are our neat Kabbalistic flow charts and clear cut Neoplatonic stages of descent. In contrast to these linear sequences, this Queered Androgyny is an ever oscillating, multi-directional chaos-star whose many rays can be simultaneously moving both outward in expression and engagement, and inward in reflection and self-nurture.

This principle of Androgyny is fed as much by the lived experience of unique, individual Androgynous people as it is by the realm of aspirational metaphysics. It as much as about the creativity of the Radical Faery and Butch Lesbian as it about Adam Kadmon or Ardhanarisvara. For me, to work with this form of Androgyny means to acknowledge both a dialectical process that seeks to capture the world of ideal forms, while at the same time experiencing a dialogical reality in which a multitude of positions need to be held together without a necessary resolution.

Ardhanarishvara

‘Can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl’

To seek deep benefit in engaging with these ideas and images seems to require that we tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. So often this form of doubt, confusion and psychological tension is seen as a negative or a hindrance to spiritual development and yet I believe this does not need to be case. For those of us seeking to walk an occult path, we are often called upon to make use of emotions and methods which our exoteric cousins view as dangerous or retrograde. If however we are able to engage consciously with the sense of resistance experienced in grappling with the complexity of such dialogues, then this very tension can bring about alchemical change.

If the stated aim of magical work is to create change, it would seem somewhat odd to then resist the transformation when it comes; and yet in my own life this has so often been the case. Change can happen at many levels and impact both how we experience ourselves and how we engage in relationships with others. Often the routes to change are manifested in dilemmas, loss and conflict, and the keys we need are to be found in attending to the strangeness of our dreams and the currents of the unconscious made manifest in our Art.

This is the unconscious territory that the Surrealists were so adept in exploring in their work, with the strange often jarring images revealing aspects of self that were bizarre, blurred and often monstrous. In alchemical terms this connection to the unconscious and the shadow represent the stage of nigredo or “blackening”. For the surrealists such territory was vital to their artistic inspiration and similarly for our magical work to have any really depth or sustained power, we must tap into this libidinal black flame of inspiration.

carrington

Leonora Carrington Inn of the Dawn Horse

We have already explored something of the fertile intersect that exists between Surrealism and the artistic deployment of occult ideas and images. Themes as diverse the etheric double, the daemonic and the Witches’ sabbat were explored to varying degrees and there seems to be a significant connection between this use of magical themes and the often weird animalistic characters with which they populated their artistic landscapes.

The link between the magical, the animal and the potentially Queer is present in much Surrealist work and for me the most engaging aspects of such exploration, lies in the way in which it seems to capture that zone of liminal strangeness and mystery. The Surrealist imagination was alive to potency to be found in understanding the animal (whether actual or in more mythic forms) as a way of recontacting the sensual and instinctual realms that weave through the body. For me this wilder magic seems to connect to an almost pre-verbal stage of development that resonates with Spare’s idea of “atavistic resurgence”.

The folklore of the Lycan and Vampyre point us towards a magical worldview in which we can explore the vitality gained through a deeper connection to the visceral. Similarly the Witches’ animal familiar the “Fetch”, or the animal-dimension of Norse soul-lore breach our polite attempts to conceive of a humanity devoid of wildness.

In contrast to the clean, vertical fusing of Ardhanrisvara, the truly Queer genius of Levi’s depiction of Baphomet is partly located in the way in which the animal sits alongside the male and female. In trying to work with our own processes of dissolving and coming back together, Baphomet’s animal dimensions remind us of the power, joy and danger that can be accessed when we risk tuning into the whole of ourselves.

My own attempts to access these states has come via bodywork, dance/shaking states and prolonged trance drumming. I have also had a great deal of pleasure revisiting Gordon MacLellan’s excellent book Sacred Animals which provides some excellent practical guidance for exploring these themes. The ability to inhabit these places feels vital for those of us seeking to embody both freethinking and the magic of the Queer. These places beyond binaries and old certainties rarely allow prolonged rest, but they are undoubtedly transformational!

SD

 

 

 

 

 

Typhonic Strands and AMOOKOS

What follows is far from definitive, but hopefully allows for further reflection and an appreciation of the unique contribution that the Amookos (Arcane and Magickal Order Of the Knights Of Shambhala) current has made to the current magical revival.

In considering my own magical development, and the role that the Amookos work has had in shaping my evolution, I was struck by some of the often unspoken commonalities that seem to be shared between some of the main practitioners within the tradition. When assessing the contribution and histories of those adepts whose work I have come to respect, I have been struck by the significant influence of what we might broadly describe as the Typhonian tradition.

While we may gain much from an in-depth discussion as to what we mean by the descriptor ‘Typhonian’, for the purposes of this reflection I am using it to broadly categorize those people who have been shaped significantly by the work, ideas and writing of Kenneth Grant. As I hope will become clear, the people who have been involved with the Amookos work have each taken his inspiration in unique and interesting directions, but have a shared appreciation of the spiritual terrain he was seeking to map.

The genesis of Amookos is often considered to be the result of Mike Magee’s (Sri Lokanath) initiatory relationship with Sri Mahendranath (Dadaji) and the seismic impact that this had on his personal magical universe.  While the encounter with Dadaji was undoubtedly powerful in setting Mike along a path via which he came to be recognized as an expert Sanskrit scholar and translator of key Tantric texts, I have often wondered whether the richness of the Amookos current is derived from a more complex interplay.

kennethandmike

Mike writes: “This picture is of Kenneth and me in 1978 in our flat in Golders Green, just round the corner from where he lived. I am missing him. He was a master of wisdom.  I venerate his memory.”

Prior to this shift Mike had worked for some seven years with Kenneth Grant and while he was clear on the profound change wrought by contact with the Dadaji, it would be fair to speculate as to the degree that his earlier work with Grant continued to be foundational. We know from Grant’s history (as depicted within At the Feet of the Guru) that he himself had had direct contact with Yogic teaching and technique, and Mike is quite open about how the presence of this material in his work with Grant catalyzed his own journey eastwards. Prior to travelling to India and encountering Dadaji, Mike had already begun mantra work, embarked on in-depth studies of Sidereal astrology and Sanskrit, and was familiar with Kashmir Shaivism. While the work with Grant was undoubtedly rich and challenging, he was unable to offer Mike the type of direct initiatory experience he was seeking in order to affirm the knowledge he had gained.

Far be it from me to make comment on the internal dynamics of a Guru-Chela relationship and the whole complex of relationships and community politics that resulted from Sri Lokanath’s work with Dadaji. As some may know, much ink has been spilt and opinion expressed as to how Dadaji’s declining health impacted on his relationships with those close to him. What I feel to be worthwhile, is to describe my own sense of why I and others continue to experience the idea and curriculum of Amookos as having spiritual value.

Having spent significant parts of my adolescence exploring the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, when I began training as a magician in my mid-20s, the East-West synthesis that I experienced in the Amookos work made a great deal of sense to me. Here was a magical group that made use of Yogic technique and perspectives while at the same time incorporating the liberty and self-determination associated with the philosophy of Thelema.

My own route into the Amookos work was via the writing and inspiration of Mogg Morgan. I was fortunate to receive some mentoring from Mogg over a number of years and was eventually given diksha by him. Mogg’s work with the Egyptian God Set is well known and he is quite open about the early impact that his time in Kenneth Grant’s Typhonian Order (the then Typhonian Ordo Templi Orientis, TOTO) had on his magical development.

Having made some links with Mogg via the Oxford Golden Dawn Society, I dug into his Tankhem writings that sought to draw parallels between the God Set and the path of Tantra. What could the recovery of the myth of this “Hidden God” reveal about the diversity of the Egyptian tradition; and how might Tantric and early Hermetic traditions cross-fertilize? This is heady territory, and part of my own desire for closer links with Amookos were significantly influenced by Mogg’s interest in the early history of these Typhon-Tantra links.

As I dove into the Amookos grade papers (published as Tantra Magick) I was struck by the helpful way in which Mike sought to lead the aspirant through a process of self-understanding that would allow for the cultivation of Svvechacharya (true Will). The path of Tantra is often described as that of the Virya, or hero, and when expressed within the tribe of practitioners of the Nath sampradya, the Thelemic goal of awakening and self-sovereignty seemed especially to the fore.

KalachakraSera

Kalachakra thangka painted in Sera Monastery, Tibet.

For me, the beauty of Tantra Magic as a curriculum is that rather than being left with a vague sense that we should pursue “Peace, Freedom and Happiness”, we are given some clear exercises to help us in developing a more Tantric appreciation of our lives. Time does not allow a full exposition here, but Sri Lokanath does a masterful job in exploring themes as wide ranging as the awakening of the senses, the nature of time, and the conscious use of the persona in interacting with the world. Mike does a gallant job in wrestling with the Tantric project of engaging with the realm of the body and life’s earthiness as a means of awakening, and seeking to answer the question of what it might mean to become more fully human.

The heydays of Amookos in the early 1980s provided both inspiration and direction for innovative magicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only do we have the emergence of Chaos Magic (again heavily influenced by Grant), but we also have the Voudon-Gnostic research of Michael Bertiaux (see Cult of the Shadow) and the Post-Satanic work of Michael Aquino as manifest in the Temple of Set. For me personally, one key figure to emerge from this occult maelstrom was Maggie Ingalls.

Known more commonly as Nema, Ingalls worked directly with Grant within the TOTO and her inspired engagement with Frater Achad’s work with the Aeon of Maat is described in some detail by Grant in Outside the Circles of Time. Via her work with Maat, Nema received a channelled work via an androgynous figure from the future that she identified as N’Aton. For her, the Aeons of Horus and Maat formed a complementary whole or “double current”, with the scales of Maat providing a feminine counter-balance to the surging energy of the conquering child. In addition to working with a collective of ritual magicians in the Cincinnati area,  Nema was also an initiate within the Amookos tradition. While I may be unfamiliar with many of the adepts working at this time, figures such as Denny Sargent (Hermeticusnath) and Jan Fries were also instrumental in articulating a fusion of Typhonian, Maatian and Nath-Tantric currents.

n'aton

Horus-Ma’at Lodge – N’Aton

I hope what this potted history is helping to illustrate is that there seems to be lots of thoughtful, creative magicians finding inspiration from both the Yogic approach of Amookos and the more creative, nightside explorations of the Typhonian current. While this is an interesting intersect to note, perhaps the more pressing (and interesting) question is to why these approaches are experienced as being complimentary?

Like his teacher Crowley, Grant’s genius is arguably that he was both a great innovator and a great assimilator of other sources. In his desire to explore mystery, Grant engaged with a broad range of occult practitioners (Crowley, Spare, Bertiaux and Nema) and filtered their insights through his own magical imagination. In considering the commonalities between the luminaries that inspired him, I am struck by their shared engagement with the unconscious and their use of visual art as a means of accessing it.

Grant’s magical exploration of both dark Stygian depths and weird stellar realms seem to embody a more Lunar-Vaginal Thelema in contrast to Crowley’s Solar-Phallic one. Of course we are grappling here with binaries and the dangers of over-simplification, but it does feel that Crowley’s somewhat outdated, linear Victoriana was counter-balanced brilliantly by Grant’s strange, writhing surrealism.

For me this is where the strength of something like the Amookos work comes into its own. While Kenneth Grant’s work is strong in the evocation of mood and sense of how strange the magical universe can be, arguably he is weaker at communicating what precisely one does (in terms of technique) to actually get and remain there.

If Crowley (and Parsons) introduced us to the way in which the pursuit of Babalon can fuel our personal Grail quest, then Grant confronts us with the disturbing cost that the pursuit of Shakti might entail. If we seek an experience of the Goddess that moves beyond two-dimensional wish-fulfillment, then it is likely that we will need to make contact with those sources that have evolved a deeper appreciation. For me it feels likely that part of the attraction to Tantra for second and third generation Thelemites is the way in which it offers richer, time-tested means for experiencing She who births, loves and destroys.

Balance is always difficult to maintain, both in terms of our own personal equilibrium and in addressing the various domains of magical development within the context of an Order. Active skills versus cultivating receptivity, prescription versus personal liberty, and group versus solo practice are all competing needs that we seek to balance in ensuring a holism to our learning. In my experience curriculums such Liber MMM and Tantra Magick tend to have an enduring value in that they provide substance and suggestion without demanding adherence to material that may not fit too well with individual disposition.  As Mike himself states in Tantra Magick:

This expression of the I Ching reveals the dynamic magick of AMOOKOS. The Ridgepole is the fluid yet equipoised point existing between the two states of active/passive. Tantra Magick, p93.

Having waxed lyrical for over 1,500 words about the benefits that working with this curriculum offers those wanting a deeper experience of the Thelemic and Typhonian currents, one may rightly wonder, “Well, why isn’t Amookos that functional as an Order anymore?” The answer to this question is complex in that it is connected to the question of whether we believe formal magical Orders remain valuable; and also, which measure we use in quantifying success.

While formal Orders may have a specific and valuable role in the early stages of a person’s magical development, I would wonder whether longer term involvement is essential as a universal aspiration. Social media and a greater espousal of “Open Source” philosophy, mean that for many there is far easier access these days to both arcane information and the possibility of discussing its meaning with others. While I still personally believe that there is much to gain from experiencing the demands and checks that Orders can provide, I am also aware that much energy can be expended in political struggles and in perpetuating ideas that while once helpful are now largely irrelevant.

Many of those people who were members of Grant’s TOTO report the rather strange experience of having made progress and then having been kicked out.  Now while on one level this might appear a bit odd, it may be an initiatory masterstroke! If we reflect upon the way in which a variety of adepts have taken their initial inspiring experience of the Typhonian current and then dispersed it more widely into occult culture, then we might begin to wax lyrical about dandelions succeeding at the point at which they manage to disperse their seed to the wind.

In many ways I see the current role of Amookos as being quite similar to this. As a functional Order that convenes lots of lively gatherings it’s frankly a bit of a failure (at least currently in the UK!). What I do think it succeeds in doing is in providing a node of practice, thought and inspiration around how we integrate Yogic thinking with Thelemic philosophy in its broadest sense. It is my hope that it can still offer some supportive mentoring and friendship to those wanting to evolve a more balanced Magical path in which solar, lunar, light and shadow are allowed to dance together. By seeking to make transparent the ongoing influence of the Typhonian tradition on its form of Tantra, it is my hope that we can move beyond over-dependence on idealized teachers, or the pursuit of a style of Hindu re-enactment that fails to bring us closer to greater freedom. As Mike wisely observes in the introduction to Tantra Magic:

If the work of the Amookos grades was successful, an individual would finally realise that the grades and work were simply a means to an end, to be discarded once the essence was extracted. … Names such as Nath, and groups such as Amookos, could only remain as relative things. When spirit is free, what matter the name its outer form is given?

SD

Many thanks to Mike Magee and Mogg Morgan for giving this piece the once-over and filling in some historical gaps. J

Heretic Heroes Part 4: “Let My People Go!” Witchcraft as a Liberation Theology

Most religious systems are ultimately designed as systems of liberation. They may differ in terms of what they think we are in need of liberation from (Sin, Desire, Ignorance, Maya etc.), but my own reading is that they are seeking to offer some sort of solution to our haunting sense of discomfort. While such answers may begin with the insights of an enlightened individual, they rarely remain as such. Given time to evolve and gaze outwards, many religious traditions develop a Mahayanist dimension where the liberation of the individual demands a response to the “other”. Bodhisattva vows and states of kenosis (self-emptying) are no guarantee of socio-political engagement beyond well-intended paternalism, but they can often provide the basis for developing more empowered notions of interdependence and systemic awareness.

The 1950s and 60s witnessed an important movement within the Roman Catholic Church in South America, when people who were engaged with the coal face of day-to-day hardship, re-envisioned the gospel message in relation to political and economic oppression. The Liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and the Gospel message of Christ were viewed as narratives of freedom whereby “the downtrodden were lifted up” (Luke 1:52). With the birth of Liberation Theology in the works of Boff, Gutierrez et al, past dogmas were no longer sufficient, and the rigors of true discipleship were now to be measured in terms of deeds or praxis. As Desmond Tutu powerfully observed; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

che-liberation

Liberation icon

In recent discussions with some of my siblings from our coven, I’ve been wondering again about the relationship between liberation and this thing we call ‘Witchcraft’. What does Witchcraft claim to offer liberation from? And is it able to embrace or embody liberation at a collective level?

Much ink has been spilt in attempting to define what Witchcraft may or may not have been, and while we have may have re-appropriated it from accusing lips, its evocative potency often evades concrete categorisation.

Cognitive Liberty

In his Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn masterfully analyses the evidence with regard to the likelihood of the Witches’ Sabbath having any basis in historic fact. Cohn concludes that it was highly unlikely that the fevered imaginings of persecuting clerics had any foundation in relation to some sort of denominational adherence to a set of pan-European ‘night ecstasies’. What seems more evident is that their actions were overwhelmingly directed at other groups of people who still considered themselves Christians. While it is almost inevitable that some of these Christians practiced magic (and by doing so, demonstrated their humanity), the fear projected by these clerics was more often motivated by an ungodly desire to control.

The Church’s ability to control would always be challenged by the heterodoxy of groups such as the Cathars, the Brethren of the Free Spirit and the Beguines, the power of their subjective gnostic experiences being valued above any external authority. Whatever the degree of adherence to such beliefs by the mainstream of society, the ideas that such outsider groups represented embodied a type of cognitive liberty that eroded the hold of any centralised hegemony.

While we may not buy into Michelet’s idealisation of the Witch as Satanic freedom fighter, there is something subversive contained within even the simplest act of folk magic. To express a sense of agency through a magical act that uses means outside or beyond the Church’s recognised sacraments is to commit an act of heteropraxy and defiance.

freedom1

“I want my folk magic back!”

Within the collective psyche of Europe, the Witch has often acted as an icon of disturbance and freedom. The projected fantasies of clerics and folkloric imaginings often allude to something dark, disturbing and subversive. The Witch often acts as an attractor for the shadow aspects of those cultures within which they are suspected of dwelling. They are the hags and the shape-shifters whose messy bodies both arouse and unsettle us. They seem to be scapegoats onto whose heads the repressed longings of society are spoken.

In bearing the weight of such dangerous passions they often hold a position on the outer edge of social and ethical evolution. In seeking to own their own sense of spiritual and moral agency, it could be argued that magicians have often played a catalysing role in pushing the boundaries of moral acceptability. When we consider a figure like Crowley and his impact on 20th century culture, while his personal chaos may still make him less than attractive as a role model, the bisexuality and entheogenic exploration that then caused such outrage are now far less contentious.

To question orthodoxies and seek new means for personal exploration will inevitably threaten those for whom stability is paramount. Those of us who consciously embrace identities such as ‘Witch’, ‘Magician’ or ‘Gnostic’ are honor bound to aid our cultures’ development, in prodding them to embrace diversity, multiplicity and liberty. When we take on this mantle we must remain awake to the reality that we both represent the freedom that so many seek, and that we still risk being scapegoated by those who would seek to control.

SD

A Fondness for Snakes – the Art of Marchesa Casati

Imagine that you are invited to an astonishing, opulent house. In the property’s winter garden, near the west wing, dwell fabulous beasts; scaled and feathered marvels. On entering the building you are greeted by a mechanical stuffed panther, moving and growling, its eyes flashing feline fire. You are escorted by exquisitely liveried footmen into the bedchamber of the lady of the house. A woman with kohl ringed eyes dilated with belladonna extract, and wild flame-red hair. She is one of the richest woman in Europe (you have been transported back to France in the 1920s ).

Admitted to the bedchamber you discover your hostess; “…enveloped in white tulle and crowned by an upside-down silver flower pot, adorned by a single white ostrich plume…sat on a vast green carpet made to resemble a grassy lawn.” However the lady is not pleased by the inclusion of felt daisies in the weave of her indoor sward and asks you to join her in snipping off these disagreeable blooms. There are gilded scissors to do the job along with, “…foie gras and champagne served from a picnic basket presented by a black youth in fancy dress”.

027

Images of the Marchesa Casati courtesy of Ryersson & Yaccarino and The Casati Archives

This isn’t some baroque hallucinatory event but one of the many real, utterly fabulous, moments in the life of the Marchesa Luisa Casati who, in the early 20th century, was one of the most outlandish, shocking and remarkable figures of the age.

I’d only briefly encountered the Casati story so it wasn’t until reading two wonderful books that I came to appreciate both the significance and astonishing flamboyance of this woman. Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of The Marchesa Casati by Scot.D.Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino is a wonderful biography, meticulously researched and a real page-turner of a read (the quotes above are from that volume), and The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, a lavishly produced, image rich, large format book by the same authors.

There is a tale of a brief meeting between Casati and Aleister Crowley and it appears they didn’t get along too well. Were history to have unfolded differently in that respect we might already have Thelema as mass global religion (which may or may not be a good thing…) since the Marchesa was easily as much an incarnation of Babalon as Crowley was of the Beast. Like Crowley, Casati shocked the high society of la Belle Époque and the fin de siècle decadence, as nations cranked themselves up for the first century of industrialised warfare. Naked beneath furs, great strings of pearls dragging on the floor, leading her cheetahs on diamond studded leashes, Casati adorned and scandalised the age. She had the money to do so, a vast fortune which, like all interesting people, she blew on sex, drugs, art, parties, and magic.

Though details are obscure Casati was an occultist, with magnificent rooms dedicated to magical pursuits in her various houses. These were spaces of rare esoteric tomes, divinatory equipment, heavy incense and yet more exotic pets; ritual spaces that would undoubtedly have made Crowley as green as the Marchesa’s large eyes, with envy.

The stated (magical) intention of the Marchesa Casati was “I want to be a living work of art”, and this she did. Reading the list of artists that chose her as their subject is like reading a Who’s Who of 20th century European Art: Picasso, Man Ray, Epstein, Augustus John, Alberto Martini, Romaine Brooks… the list goes on. Costume (often outlandish, frequently revealing or otherwise transgressive, sometimes genuinely dangerous), sculpture, photography, painting and  more were enriched by the Marchesa as muse and by her financial support of numerous avant-garde artists.

The Marchesa with her crystal ball

The Marchesa with her crystal ball

Of course like any magical figure Casati managed, in a sense, to disappear. That is, while her money and eventually her body gave out (she died in 1957 and was buried in London, ironically beneath a monument that records her name incorrectly), she was reborn (much as Crowley has been) as an cultural icon. She is ground zero for many of the experiments with identity and style of the late 20th and early 21st century. Madonna, Lady Gaga, even Robert Smith of The Cure and Tim Minchin are (knowingly or not) the aesthetic children of the Marchesa. To quote one online article that explores her legacy; “the Marchesa is possibly the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra– her influence is all around us.”

Perhaps it is fitting, as we head towards Halloween, that I’ll soon have the opportunity to visit Luisa’s final resting place. Beneath the London earth, wearing her black and leopard skin finery and a pair of false eyelashes, Casati is interred with one of her beloved stuffed pekinese dogs. Halloween is of course the season where we celebrate the sign of the Scorpion (emblem of magic, money, sex and death) and seek to commune with our ancestors. Money was undoubtedly a vital ingredient in the story of the Marchesa Luisa Casati and my visit to her grave will coincide with  a spot of collaborative ‘Money Magic’. In the words of one of our conspirators “…a group of independent artists, magicians, pagans, druids, and media workers…plan to hold a series of ritual events in the City of London…Our aim is to bring the subject of money creation to public attention using ritual as our symbolic tool. We say that money is a sigil, a magical symbol which enters our lives on the most fundamental level, as desire. Money represents the fulfillment (or lack) of all desire in the current world and we carry it about on our persons, in our wallets and our purses, in our pockets and handbags, allowing it to control us on the most intimate and secret of levels.”

The Machesa Luisa Casati, like Crowley, displayed a fascinating relationship with money; she went from being one of the richest women of her age to having debts of over $25 million, and ended her days in a one room apartment. Yet according to many commentators she retained an irrepressible joie de vivre even in her most impecunious periods. Casati managed to dispose of her fortune in pursuit of her desire to become ‘a living work of art’ much as Crowley broke the bank with his Will to become ‘the Prophet of the New Aeon’. In both cases their money was used in the service of their ‘highest ideal’, their self-absorbed and yet self-transcending intention. This is an approach to life, to money and wealth, that goes beyond ideas of individual ownership, that spurns the hoarding up of capital for its own sake, and even now, still manages to shock the bourgeoisie.

JV

Properly Prepared – Initiations into Freemasonry and Chaos Witchcraft

This week I took my Third Degree initiation and became a Master Mason, which was nice.

As someone who has already gone through Wiccan, OTO, IOT and other initiatory rites I found the Masonic initiation process fascinating and deeply moving. As anyone who has been paying attention to the history of esotericism knows, many key elements of contemporary ‘western’ initiatory ritual (being blindfold and bound, actual or symbolic nakedness, a challenge with a weapon at the threshold of the sacred space) along with much of the specific language (such as ‘The Charge’, the formal presentation of ‘working tools’ and phrases such as ‘So Mote it Be!’) are derived from Freemasonry.

For those of a salacious (or insane) persuasion Freemasonry undoubtedly conjures up fantasies of a baby-eating, one-world governing, lizard brotherhood. The truth is rather less outré. Freemasonry exists primarily as an inclusive (ie multi-denominational) ritual structure at the core of something which is essentially an affinity group based on mutual aid. That’s why there were so many Freemasons (and indeed other organisations such as the Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, the Ancient Order of Druids and the Ancient Order of Foresters) in early modern Britain. These groups provided their members with financial and social support in times of trouble before the creation of welfare state and social security systems. (Which, it’s worth remembering, is a valuable all-inclusive structure: One my ancestors fought for having endured exploitation by the plutocratic class during the times of enclosure and the industrial revolution.)

Woodland regalia

Woodland regalia

The rituals within Freemasonry, whether they are the Three Degrees or the side-degrees (such as The Royal Arch) are typically initiations. This emphasis on initiation is continued by the Masonic-Thelemic mashup of practice provided by the OTO, and indeed this focus on initiation found in some styles of Wicca. (In its most curious manifestation this shades off into, in my view, a bizarre emphasis by some ‘hard Gard‘ practitioners on maintaining an imagined lineage of practice back to Gerald Gardner who, as any fule kno, along with Crowley, made up Wicca in the first place, predominately out of his own head.)

Freemasonic rituals are learnt by heart, and this is key to the practice. In a chaos magic sense the ‘esoteric tech’ being deployed is that of achieving memorisation, while at the same time, keeping the ritual sounding fresh and alive (especially when these words are spoken to the candidate during initiation).

The corpus of Masonic ritual texts is extensive, with much of the material being contained in The Blue Book (which naturally comes in many variations depending on the Lodge, region and nation in question). Unsurprisingly, given the period in history in which this system was developed (the United Grand Lodge in Britain is about to celebrate its 300th year anniversary) the art of memory is central to the system. I’ve met Freemasons who have memorised The Blue Book completely and, when examined, can recall the text, in any order, with >97% accuracy. Now that’s certainly one way to ‘build the temple’ (or pyramid, see below) of practice!

While Freemasonry relies on the cultivation of exact memory my own practice is usually quite different.

Another day, another initiation; This time with me as one of the initiators.

I was approached by a magician from London who asked if he could undergo an initiatory process within the envelope of Chaos Craft. His motivation wasn’t so much to be part of ‘our club’ but rather to use an approach to magic he digs (ie that witchcraft meets experimental magic vibe) as part of his own self-transformative process. Sometimes an initiation isn’t into something, as much as it is about a process; a desire for a ceremonial act that both recognises where we are at, and instigates a new cycle of change and development at an individual level.

Challenging times

Challenging times

Our candidate having completed his preparatory work, bravely made his way from the big city to deepest darkest Devon. That evening we read through the ritual, a variation of the one given in Chaos Craft. Since our candidate had also read the rite (and because we tend to favour an open source approach) we took a little time in my kitchen to run through the ceremonial plan with him present:

“So, we make the space. Do some stuff to open, maybe the chaosphere banishing.”

“What 8.1?”

“Or is it 1.8? Anyhow, yeah, up and down once, then 8 thingies at each direction widdershins”

“Then say some stuff about the wheel of the year and pull in the powers from each direction…”

Our informality was obvious. In our group (in this case me, Nikki Wyrd and Steve Dee) we’ve worked together for so many years we can use a simple short-hand. But as I explained to our guest and candidate:

“Don’t worry, we talk about this like it’s throw away stuff, but we’ll be using some serious focus when we’re in the temple.”

(And we did.)

Star system

Star system

At the end of the Chaos Craft initiation the new initiate is asked to declare an identity for themselves with a (magical) name and (personally chosen) title. In advance of the rite I could see our candidate diligently reading through this section of the text (and generally looking for those places in the order of ceremony where he had to say stuff), so I explained:

“Each piece of text here is a guide to what might be expressed at this point in the ritual. Don’t worry about the exact words. Think of the writing more like place-holders for what we hope will be expressed in each part of the ceremony”.

This free-form approach to ritual is much more common in (for want of better words) ‘shamanic’ styles of work, in contrast with the rote-learning Hermetic-Masonic styles of ceremony. While shamanic style rites may require memorisation (many archaic cultures have great traditions of learning stories, geologies and songs by heart, and the Chaos Craft initiation itself requires the memorisation of a Barbaric Invocation) the emphasis is on what I call ‘saying what needs to be said in the moment’. The words on the page are like guidance notes; serving suggestions for what happens as the ceremony unfolds. In terms of the esoteric tech this is a method-acting, spontaneous approach.

Obviously contrasting these approaches isn’t a value judgement; memorised ritual has it’s place, as does a more improvised style. And a good blend of both approaches is what the successful occultist aims to cultivate. Like Crowley says:”The Magician must build all that he has into his pyramid; and if that pyramid is to touch the stars, how broad must be the base!”

May your pyramid touch the stars!

JV

 

Speaking of Drugs and Gaga Gurus

The Glastonbury Occult Conference was a sell-out event, and a great opportunity for the folk of the British esoteric scene to gather. I’d spent most of the weekend hanging out with my children, so I wasn’t able to attend on the Friday or Saturday (though judging by the smiles of those I spoke with, the celebrations on Saturday evening had been suitably Dionysian). My talk was the final slot on Sunday afternoon and I spoke about the future of magic. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

My talk covered lots of material: the emergence of Artificial Intelligence and the magical power of technology, the wider use of magical approaches (things like psychology, mindfulness practice and the placebo effect) in culture, and the development of entheogenic spiritual traditions in the West (from rave culture to the urban ayahuasca drinkers of Europe).

mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth

mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth

I like to be a bit playful when I speak and so during the drugs bit I asked if anyone in the audience had taken ayahuasca. While there may have been people who didn’t want to say, the fact that from an audience of around 120 only 4 hands went up, is something I find really interesting (though not surprising).

Of course I work with many magicians who never use psychedelics in their Work. My Spiritual Friend Steve Dee (with whom I’ve worked closely for many years) never uses psychedelics in his practice (though his capacity for tea is unrivalled). While I think drugs can form a part of a very powerful technology for exploring the self, illumination, obtaining magical effects and more, many of the practitioners I work with prefer other methods of gnosis. So this low level of psychedelic drug use within the self-identified Pagan community does seem to be a real phenomena.

Another weekend, another conference, this time in Holland at the request of the excellent Pagan Federation International (PFI), I asked my audience a broader version of the question I’d asked in Glastonbury: hands up anyone that has taken psychedelic drugs? From an audience of again about 120 people, maybe 5 hands went up.

An interesting point with this is that I didn’t ask ‘who here has used psychedelics as an intentional part of their spiritual/magical practice?’. I know from conversations with folk that this would put some hands down. There are, for example, people who have dabbled with psychedelics; getting wired on acid at a festival when younger for example, perhaps with a couple of difficult experiences behind them, who are subsequently put off the whole business. Note that I’m talking about the ‘classic’ psychedelics in these conversations. Sure lots of people drink alcohol, smoke cannabis and use other substances, but even then few seem to make these materials part of an explicit ritual practice beyond the celebratory cakes & wine (…and tobacco and tea etc).

Cakes and Wine

Cakes and Wine

The dearth of psychedelics as sacraments within modern Pagan and even more ‘hardcore’ occultural communities is in contrast to their increasing use in other religious and spiritual cultures. From the Santo Daime Church and ayahuasca ‘tourists’ (or ‘pilgrims’), through the Native North American Indian style groups and peer-led networks such as the Psychedelic Society (who, as well as acting as advocates for psychedelic culture, are also beginning to offer supported psychedelic experiences); in these spaces the reclaiming of the psychedelic spiritual tradition is well underway.

My hope (which I expressed in both lectures) was that our understanding of ceremonial practice is something that occultists and pagans can offer to the emerging entheogenic cultures, especially where these are developing outside the ‘traditional’ styles of Medicine Shamanism and new religious movements. I also hope for a return to a more psychedelic magic, with an increasing range and number of practitioners feeling moved to engage with these deeply magical substances. While not for everyone by any measure, when done in a safe, sane, consensual and most importantly esoteric context they are perhaps one of the most surefire ways to empower your magic. Drugs (especially psychedelics) are demonstrably a vital technology in many occult traditions, they played an important role in the occult revival at the beginning of the 20th century, they helped kickstart the vast social changes of the mid 20th century, even getting encoded into Wicca as one of the Eight Paths to Power.

The opportunity to meet Morgana Sythove at the PFI gathering, and to spend some time in her company, was something I really enjoyed. Morgana is a Gardnerian High Priestess of many years standing. It was great to attend the conference and fully appreciate her significance, as part of a coven and a network that has given rise to operating groups and solo practitioners across Europe (and indeed Russia). Her approach to the Craft remains refreshingly undogmatic, while her lineage is direct from the original inception of Wicca by Gardner and Valiente. Along with members of her coven, we discussed the actual meaning of the Hermetic principle of polarity (which is by no means a synonym for heteronormativity), and the notion of Wicca as a Mystery religion (rather than a system for collecting degrees in the way one might collect stamps).

Her role in the recently released film Witches in Holland (from Silver Circle Publishing), and her approachable and profoundly unprejudiced introduction to Wicca Beyond the Broomstick, presents a Craft that aims to help the witch achieve a dynamic balance within their practice, as well as a felt recognition of the axiom ‘As Above, So Below’ (which, like the process of acquiring siddhis, also handily leads to magical power).

World Tree

World Tree

It was also interesting to be in the company of a practitioner who has helped grow a movement but hadn’t found themselves lost and fearful when their ‘creation’ grows up and goes beyond them.

History is of course littered with the wreckage of people who, while they may have founded a spiritual practice or community, have been unable to move from the Heroic archetypal style (which is necessary to develop a new school or style) into the adult role of Wise Sage (who accepts the changes and developments of what was once ‘their’ system).

The famous disagreement between chela Carl Jung and guru Sigmund Freud is a great example. Freud cut a new path through the understanding of the human mind (though of course he wasn’t actually original, but just a firebrand of a synthesist who was in the right place at the right time). Jung comes along and becomes the master’s favourite pupil. All is well until Jung starts to outpace Freud and goes into areas (such as the occult) that scare Freud silly. Freud becomes increasingly dictatorial and eventually they split. Jung goes on to develop what I think is one of the most interesting psychological models (especially for magicians), and of course the basis of many personality testing methods used today. Jung escapes the dour subconscious of Freud into the mythic wonderland of the unconscious. Jung also goes through some profound personal initiations (such as the illness that led to him ‘channelling’ The Red Book and his experience of having two partners) as part of this break-away process.

face off

face off

Similar Oedipal (as Freud would say) patterns can be observed in the stories of many religious and esoteric groups. A great example comes from Mogg Morgan’s book Tantra Sâdhana. In an appendix he details some of the craziness that took place when AMOOKOS founder (Shri Gurudev Dadaji Mahendranath, aka Lawrence Miles) started to feel he was losing control of ‘his’ magical order (the chapter is brilliantly entitled When Your Guru Goes Gaga). Other examples include dear old Gerald Gardner himself. Feeling that ‘his’ Wicca was out of control  he ‘discovers’ a set of Wiccan Laws to try to reassert his fading authority and significance.

This instability with teachers, while not ubiquitous, is something that happens fairly frequently and, perhaps when considered from a kind of Taoist magical perspective this is destined to happen. As the control of a group moves away from the leader, if their teaching has any value it needs to go beyond the confines of a particular school or style; becoming embedded in wider culture (or occulture). In some cases the explosion of the initial group may be necessary for this to happen. Popping like a seed pod, the creation is detonated, spreading personnel and ideas into wider society.

Fit to burst

Fit to burst

A good example of this is Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth who, while a clearly collaborative organisation, had Genesis P. Orridge as a leading figure. As I understand it Genesis left and eventually did the usual thing of declaring the order dead or dysfunctional. But whatever the details, the fact is that the work of TOPY was, like the genie, out of the bottle and no-one, least of all their former leader, was going to control it. Modern iterations of sigil magic, body modification techniques, new primitivism and much more; TOPY material is now to be found informing many regions of occulture, uncopyrighted and unfettered.

Luckily, from what I’ve seen, Morgana is one teacher who isn’t suffering from gaga-guru syndrome. This may be simply because she is a more thoughtful and sensitive person than your run-of-the-mill inspiring, but somewhat socially dysfunctional, cult leader. It may also be because of the coven based organisational structure of Wicca; the lack of any (formal) wider hierarchy in the Craft (there is no Pope) and no written authority (no Holy Book). These factors may serve to reduce the likelihood of The Teacher (successfully) becoming The (would-be) Tyrant.

But perhaps it even simpler than that; a wise teacher realises, when their students go beyond what they themselves can offer, this isn’t a threat to their authority but rather the sign of a job well done.

JV