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 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.

 

 

 

 

Magical Words and Images

I hope you’re having a wonderful May! Having not long got back from running the very first retreat at St.Nectan’s Glen I’ve now got the opportunity to share some really excellent books that I’ve recently added to my library.

Heart Vision
Tarot’s Inner Path
Michael Orlando Yaccarino

Book ended with a foreword by tarot guru Rachel Pollack, and afterword by novelist and Egyptologist Normandi Ellis, Heart Vision comes with an impressive pedigree. Michael Orlando Yaccarino is perhaps best known for his engaging and exhaustive biographical works on the life of Luisa Casati (written in collaboration with Scot D.Ryersson, who also created illustrations for Heart Vision)). As per his books on The Marchesa, in Heart Vision Michael draws our attention to the work of another, sometimes overlooked, female creative. In this case it is Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist responsible for producing the compelling designs of the so-called Rider-Waite tarot deck. It is through the imagery of this quintessential deck that Yaccarino explores each of the arcana.

As Heart Vision unfolds Michael skillfully guides us through the deck, deftly bringing our attention to the hidden, the background imagery and the ‘veiled aspects’ of each card. But it’s not all about the iconography: A comprehensive range of spreads are given, with some very interesting variations. There are also examples of readings that demonstrate how the interpretative process unfolds.

Little gems of wisdom are scattered through the pages, culled from Yaccarino’s clearly extensive reading and conversations with contemporary practitioners. This is an excellent introduction to the tarot, and an enjoyable and illuminating text for the seasoned reader too. Available from Mandrake of Oxford.

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They Shimmer Within
Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives on Visionary Beings
Bruce Rimell

This is a very cogent, well cited exploration of why it is that we humans see things; things like ghosts and pixies, spirits and aliens, gods and, of course, entities when we are high (especially when we are high on Salvia, NN DMT and ayahuasca).

This book is grounded in both personal experience with visionary psychedelics and contemporary scientific models of neurological evolution. They Shimmer Within builds up the case that the beings we see (whether we are high on drugs or anxiously wandering round a haunted house) arise because our minds are primed for the detection of intelligent agents.

As well as exploring the wider lore of disembodied entities this volume also engages with topics such as those invasive alien surgeons summoned by DMT (frequently encountered when the psychonaut is injected by Dr Strassman in a hospital setting, weird eh?) and the nice summary of those ‘are the machine elves real?’ discussions as articulated by David Luke. The deep phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience (Shanon) and the modular nature of the mind (Mithen) also have a role to play in this masterful exploration of this curious and contested territory. My own copy is now full of marginalia (some of Bruce’s ideas are very similar to those I’ve written about previously) I’ve certainly been informed and inspired by this excellent text. Available via Amazon.

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3 Essays on Virtual Reality
Overlords, Civilization and Escape
Eliott Edge

It is true that in every age people have used technology to frame their thoughts about how things work. The human mind for example has been variously imagined as a loom, a hydraulic engine, a radio antenna, and of course, a computer. Elliott Edge’s book stands within that tradition, here virtual reality (VR) is the cutting edge metaphor of choice through which we may (virtually) peer at ‘the wiring under the board’ of the universe.

Discussions about whether we are living in a (computer) simulation have existed in occulture for a number of years (notably in the work of Lionel Snell aka Ramsey Dukes) and years later exploded into mainstream society in the movie The Matrix. What Edge does in his work is move the conversation on, with a range of nice thought experiments and observations delivered in an engagingly rigorous yet conversational style.

For each generation there are those who who remind us that ‘the map is not the territory’. Using the language of VR Edge analyses the world-views or reality tunnels we inhabit and reminds of this perennial (multiple) truth. 3 Essays on Virtual Reality does not fall prey to solipsism but instead addresses the very real consequences of simulated reality theory. Edge points us to paranormal studies, shamanism and magic (as well as psychedelic drugs) as agents that may allow us to examine the architecture of the reality studio, and perhaps even reconfigure the inevitable VRs in which we live. Download these essays into your VR helmet here.

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The Devon & Cornwall Pagan Federation Conference

A delightful conference that has been going for 20 years was held again in March of this year. I was invited to make the first presentation of the day on the theme of Paganism past, present and future. I had to pack my talk into less time that I initially thought available but still managed to get a few gags in.

The key point of my  presentation was that while there may be a slow down in the number of people who identify as ‘Pagan’ (at least in UK census data) there are many, many more people who do pagan things – paganing as a verb as it were.

The great increase in the numbers of people creating autonomous spiritualities, of those involved in entheogenics and many others paths, perhaps means that the practices of Paganism have gone beyond the limits of identities such as ‘witch’, ‘heathen’ and all the rest.

Next year this conference will be back, but this time as part of the Pagan Phoenix South West. More details as these unfold but for now, enjoy!

(With thanks to the wonderful Damh the Bard for his contributions to this talk and to our own Steve Dee for the metaphor of the ‘Monsters of Rock’.)

If you want to check out details of forthcoming events please have a look at this page.

Hail the Queen of the May!

Julian Vayne

PS Don’t worry if you can’t access the article Keeping the Doors of Perception Open, all will be revealed soon…;)

Group Wisdom and the Chaos Magick Tarot

I’ve been playing with the excellent Chaos Magick Group tarot recently. This wonderful collaborative work of contemporary occultists is still available to purchase, though I understand this may not be for long. If you want a copy, as E.A.Koetting might say, better act now!

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to present this deck at a large meeting of members of the IOT, and indeed to use it in a ritual context. Although I and a couple of other members of the IOT contributed card designs to the project, this tarot emerges from the wider chaos magical community. The virtual work space (a Facebook group) in which this deck was created provided the means for geographically distant occultists to work together. The creation of media by magicians, working in virtual spaces is, I suspect, something we will see more and more of. Working on these types of creative projects seems to me to be a good use of the technology I and my peers have access to.

I really enjoy collaborative working (many of my books are co-authored for this reason), so when it comes to doing magical ceremony the stuff I like most is group practice. While I’ve been involved in a few experiments in group ritual over Skype and using other tech, so far nothing comes close to being in the same physical sacred space with other magicians. Working directly with others is rich territory; there are many practices that would be impractical without collaboration; there is the possibility of camaraderie, of feedback, of challenge and much more. For me the IOT provides and excellent network through which I get to meet and work with cool magicians in physical (as well as sometimes virtual) spaces. I’m also fortunate that my relationships within the shamanic and Wiccan communities means that I’ve been able to physically work alongside some fabulous practitioners of those styles too.

Of course solitary work is important but even activities such as mindfulness meditation can benefit from the existence of a sangha, a community of practice (which provides the opportunity to practice together). Sure there may be people who, in terms of their own style, prefer to be primarily solitary. However humans are social creatures and I think that it’s helpful to bring our magic, especially our ritual work, into contact with other humans.

Loners who just can't stop joining teams

Loners who just can’t stop joining teams

One way this happens for me is via the work of being a celebrant or Priest. In that capacity those of us who do this kind of work make an offering of our skills to facilitate ritual for others. But this isn’t the same as working in a community of peers, be that a coven, temple, working group, circle or whatever. Working with other people helps us to not disappear into obsessive or narcissistic paradigms (aka up ‘one’s own arse’). Magicians, by the nature of their studies, can benefit from the occasional reality check and outside critique. A good community of practice, while supporting the basic premise of spiritual endeavor, seeks also to help the individual develop the Self (or find their ‘True Will’, ‘make their Soul’, become ‘Illuminated’ or whatever) in context of others. This is important since this is where we live – with other people.

Cultivating good, mutually beneficial relationships with others is an important part of the development of any magician who wishes to be enriched by the (human) spirits they consort with on a daily basis. The mythic tower inhabited by the iconic solitary sorcerer may make for a Tolkienesque glamour, but successful magicians are real people living with families, colleagues and the rest of humanity, connected within the noosphere of the 21st century. Meeting other humans in physical magical spaces (of an ongoing esoteric community and within ceremonial settings) – for all the slings and arrows of social interaction – helps us understand who we are, as magicians and as people.

So back to that example of good collaboration via the internet, the CMG Tarot. It was suggested in the group that contributing artists write some text to accompany their work, so here’s a brief commentary on the cards I created:

The Ace of Disks is also known as the Root of the Powers of Earth. In divination it indicates the core qualities associated with the Earthly element. These include wealth, work, the physical body, property, diligent study, territory.

The quality of this card is generally beneficial, pointing towards productive striving, steadfast discipline and success. When this symbol is encountered in difficult circumstances the process may be that of struggle, limiting obligation and toil, but unless the conditions are very difficult, there is still the suggestion of success if determination is applied.

The disk shown is the Pentacle held as part of the regalia of the British Isles Section of The Magical Pact of the Illuminates of Thanateros. A ceremonial requirement of this tool is that it is regularly used in ritual with non-members of the IOT since the purpose of the pentacle, as a plate, is to share (typically offerings of food). The disk itself is fashioned from a mirror (since magic is all about smoke and mirrors).

Various ritual items emblematic of the diversity of chaos magical practice are shown arrayed round the disk. These include the vertebra of a whale, a rudraksha mala, a chicken mask, a reefer, a drum, a scourge, a dildo and sundry other objects.

The Ace of Disks is typically the card upon which the publisher of a deck sets their seal or monogram. In this case the disk displays the eight-fold star of chaos and the koan ‘Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted’.

Ace tarot

Ace tarot

The Ten of Disks is the final card in the tarot deck. It represents the full unfolding of the earth element and the ‘completed’ journey of The Fool that is the narrative of the cards as the Mutis Liber. Using the astrological scheme devised by McGregor Mathers, this card is related to Mercury in the sign of Virgo, while the number 10 denotes the sephira of Malkuth, the World, and the final outpouring of the divine emanation. This combination of symbols strongly links this card to The Great Work as the full-flowering of illumination; however this does not lead to ‘resting on one’s laurels’ but paves the way for a new iteration of the magical process.

(The bad news for folk who think they have ‘attained’ Enlightenment (or whatever) is that nothing stays the same and there is always the perennial question, ‘what next?’)

Within the New Age paradigm this card may represent ‘prosperity consciousness’ and our ability to manifest our wealth. This may suggest a change from a scarcity based frame of mind to one predicated on an imagined universal abundance (or at least the possibility of realizing desire). The fruition of investments may be indicated by this card, retirement, and a sense of accomplishment. Like the rune Othala this card is related to the idea of inheritance (of money, property, genetics, stories of our culture), the wealth that comes to us and which we in turn pass on to others.

The disks show in the image are drawn from many nations suggesting they are owned by someone who has lived a well-travelled and rich life. The disks are shown spilling, or perhaps flying, out of a bag. This bag is the same one typically carried in images of The Fool over the shoulder as a bindle, or on the back as a knapsack.

The bag is emblazoned with the stars of deep space recalling the primeval Kia from which emerge all the objects of the world. The title of this card is ‘Lord of Wealth’ and the wise understand that Wealth, though symbolised here as coins, comes in many forms. (All money is forged not of metal but from the imagination. The person with a rich imagination, combined with the diligence represented by the earthly disks, can never be poor.) The coins in this card are free from their original containment in The Fool’s knapsack, since Wealth implies freedom and exchange rather than avarice and acquisition. They have, in an esoteric sense, been put into circulation (‘spent’) by The Fool during the journey through the other 76 cards. In the 10 of Pentacles the initial ‘capital’ of The Fool reappears in the form of experiential Wealth because he has invested in the journey and not retreated from engagement with the World.

One of the disks shown is a solid gold chaosphere owned by a former British Isles Section Head of The Illuminates of Thanateros, this was crafted by the master jeweller Russell Lownsbrough. Another is made of chocolate.

Lord of Wealth

Lord of Wealth

The tarot cards are a magical community, a jostling pack of spirits. They mean things in themselves (though not perhaps without an observer…) but gain so much more in relationship with their fellows.

As occultists we also live among the spirits; of animals, plants, places, people and more. It is in those relationships where much of the magic happens, just as it is within the combination of cards that the reading, the transformative journey of question and revelation, unfolds.

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