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

The Books of Magic – reviews of some top volumes of esoterica

Twister Power is the prequel to Dave Lee’s novel Road to Thule and like that first book this is another heady blend of drugs, magic and future technology set against the backdrop of a world  heading towards economic and environmental collapse. The use of technology to enhance parapsychological powers is central to the plot and there are a number of asides in the novel that explore the history and development of magic. A dystopian cyberpunkesque tale, Twisted Power will be of interest to both sci-fi heads and futurist sorcerers.

Magical future shock

Magical future shock

Defining Magic: A Reader does what it says on the tin. This academic and (by and large) accessible volume explores the repeated attempts by the academy to answer that perennial question/koan ‘what is magic’? From James Frazer and his formulation of sympathetic and imitative magic, through to much less ‘sceptical’ or ‘detached’ theoreticians (such as Susan Greenwood) this book provides a very fine window into the two thousand year old process of people trying to establish what that slippery word magic actually points to. Recommended to both academics in this field and esoteric practitioners who want to gain valuable insight into the meaning and history of their practice.

Noumenautics by academic, philosopher and psychonaut Peter Sjöstedt-H is another fascinating book from the Psychedelic Press UK imprint. The first section deals with an analysis of the psychedelic experience (particularly those states produced by psilocybin mushrooms and LSD), while the latter section of the book presents a close analysis of (neo) nihilism and in particular the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. This volume joins the ranks of those tomes that emerge when you drop psychedelic drugs into the brain of a writer. The particular nihilist spin that Sjöstedt-H provides is fascinating, though I’d like to discover (perhaps in future writings) more about how the author sees the relationship of this philosophical school and psychedelics.

Mushroom philosophy

Mushroom philosophy

Riding out from the serious academic stable of Oxford University Press is The Devil’s Party, subtitled Satanism in Modernity. This is wonderful collection of intelligent papers covering many and diverse aspects of the development of Satanic culture and identity. Highlights for me included the thoughtful and generous re-appraisal of LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, and a  great essay about probably the first self-described Satanist Stanislaw Przybyszewski. Interesting, though in my viewed flawed, is the final paper on The Order of Nine Angles (which seems to exist mostly as a juvenile literary fiction rather than, as the author of the paper imagines, an actual organisation). Overall this is a fascinating, inclusive and well researched exploration of the new religious movement of modern Satanism.

The Museum Dose by the amusingly monikered Daniel Tumbleweed combines two subjects close to my heart; namely cultural spaces and drugs. Daniel takes us on a tour of locations including The Guggenhein Museum and Brian Eno’s exhibition ’77 million paintings’ at Café Rouge. Moreover these adventures happen on exciting drugs such as 25-MeO-MiPT & C-t-2 respectively. In these and ten other places the author invites us to explore, though his excellent prose, the interface between psychedelics, art, history and imagination. This book will be of interest  to both cultural curators and fans of psychedelic literature. Even if exotic drugs are not your bag the engaging authorial voice still makes this a great read.

The final book in this set is the Mutus liber of the tarot, specifically the (Facebook) Chaos Magick Group (CMG) Tarot. This social media mediated collaborative project saw 47 artists and chaos magic practitioners creating a diverse and deep series of images. The whole project took around 2 years from inception to manifestation as a physical deck, with project co-ordinator Paul Nott expertly herding the chaos cats until, as you can see in this video, our collective desire was realised.

 

CMG has  proved to a wonderfully creative space with a collective intelligence capable of identifying and booting out objectionable online nutters but managing to preserve a brilliant Discordian culture. I contributed two cards to the deck as did Nikki Wyrd and we are both really proud to have been part of this excellent venture. Check the deck out (and make a purchase if you Will) here.

Enjoy!

JV

 

Illuminating the history of Chaos Magic

There have been various attempts to provide a history of chaos magic; to describe the genesis and development of Current 23.

Chaos magic (CM) emerges initially in the British Isles, also the birthplace of Wicca, Neo-Druidry and Thelema. A nice description of the origins of CM can be found in Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate’s The Book of English Magic and of course there is various material available online (ranging from the broadly accurate, through to the ranty and occasionally bonkers end of the market). More useful background history can be found in The History of British Magic After Crowley by Dave Evans which also contextualises the rise of CM at a time when Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth was at its most active. However the most up-to-date reflections on CM, and in particular the origins and work of The Magical Pact of the Illuminates of Thanateros (IOT), can to be found in a recent lecture by Dave Lee. This presentation was made to a packed house at the wonderful Treadwell’s bookshop in London (where, incidentally, I’m running a workshop in September).

Bill & Dave's excellent adventure

Bill & Dave’s excellent adventure

In common with many other esoteric organisations the initiatory oath of the IOT requires members to be circumspect when discussing the group with non-members. This oath of secrecy aims to ensure that individuals do not have their membership revealed, without their express consent, to non-members. (While the situation in Britain is much better than it was in years past there are still contexts in which ‘coming out’ as an occultist may cause difficulties for people.) The other reason for ‘keeping silent’ is to ensure that the inter-personal processes arising within a group magical context are contained in a safe, supportive and respectful space.

With all that in mind Dave provides a very candid personal account. He manages to respect confidences, maintain a generous spirit towards those who were there at the inception of the current, and to describe in detail some IOT workings that have been ‘declassified’. This interview is both a fascinating tale of an individual practitioner’s journey into magic, and an important overview of the story of CM thus far.

Enjoy!

JV