Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Grimoire Envy, and the Trials of Reconstructionism

So, I'll let this be my last round on this topic for now, but in talking about the work of inventing a ritual magic model for a Celtic Pagan system, several things have poked their way into my head.

I’m torn in two directions in my approach to magic, spirituality and religion. Maybe more than two.
First, I think that there’s merit in learning both what early-modern magic-users and pre-Christian worshippers really did. While I do think that the western tech world is better in many ways for humans than the world of the ancients, I think that the modern world has largely lost an entire body of method and understanding surrounding the spiritual world. I assume that ancient Europe had a full menu of methods for altering awareness, generating interior psycho-spiritual effects and contacting non-physical intelligences. Unfortunately a thousand years and more of deliberate effort to wipe out that tech has reduced them, in many cases, to fragments.

This is certainly the case in our efforts to create a working modern polytheism based on ancient European models. Even in the Mediterranean world, where literacy and stone-carving have allowed a large body of Pagan lore to survive, we are still dealing with a tattered and incomplete remnant. Most especially we have little or no idea of the mindset of the common worshipper, of the relative place of belief and praxis, of the emotional nature of the relationship with the gods and spirits or much of anything else. In Northern Europe the case is worse. We have nothing literary at all from pre-Christian times and much less hard archeology.

So why do I bother? That’s the second fork. I’m simply drawn to ancient days. To an aesthetic of Iron-age Europe, in a culture where the Gods and Spirits are close and the work of mages, poets and other weirdoes is valued. It’s a love for the culture and music of the Gaels, and a fascination with their tales and ways that goes back almost as far in my personal history as my fascination with sorcery and occultism itself.

If I had to decide which labels are biggest on my label-cloud it would be Occultist or Magician followed or equaled by Pagan, with Celtic a close third. That’s one reason why I never meshed too well with some reconstructionists. When I say Celtic Pagan, I’m mostly interested in the first term as it is modified by the second. When the Irish people cease to be polytheists I simply lose some interest in their history. That doesn’t put me well in line with those who want reconstructionism to point toward sympathy with modern anti-colonial or nationalist causes, or with those who seek ‘cultural purity’ (a notion that would have been nonsense to the ancients in most cases). Likewise when I say magic I often say Pagan Magic, because I’m not interested in varying my theological position based on that of the author of a method I’m lifting. That doesn’t sit well with grimoire reconstructionists and those doing a strictly post-Agrippa, heretical-but-folk-Christian-y system.

Nevertheless I love the Iron Age Celtic or Gaelic idiom, and love the ritual work I do within it. Rufus envied my freedom to experiment, and I do have some of that, though I’ve tried to keep myself inside the cultural parameters of the Gaelic experiment. Since we don’t have example of what the ancient Druid magicians *did* do, I must go about devising things they *could have* done. Some of those may be good enough guesses to be things they *might have* done. Nevertheless there are huge holes to fill, that mainly involve lifting tech from other systems.

That doesn’t really sit well with conservative Celtic reconstructionists, who often seem to limit themselves to what can be proved to have been done. Likewise the fact that the 17th century and later are not eras that really push my romanticism buttons. If what I wanted was to be a waistcoated cunning-man, healing by the saints and hunting treasure by calling upon local devils, there’s actually plenty of material on which to base a practice. Likewise if I wanted to be a Scot or a man of County Claire from that same period I could adopt those social and material trappings, and do some folkloric Catholic-fairy practice. I find it unlikely that Celtic-language-speaking folks of that age shared much more in common with the ancients than I do, and I tend to think I can learn more about the polytheistic Celts by studying polytheistic Africans or Japanese than by studying Catholic 18th century Gaels. (That said, one way that early modern people did in fact retain old ways was in the continuing survival of spirit-contact and awareness of the non-material world. That’s one thing that makes early-modern folk culture interesting to occultism.)

My problem is that the style I dig is an Iron-Age Celtic magician-priest. While we can be as certain as we need to be that such folks existed, we have diddle-all record of their work, much less surviving manuals. Celtic recons attempt to work around this problem by drawing on medieval Celtic-nations literature and Gaelic folklore collected in the last 300 years. The notion that ancient Pagan ways survive in early modern folkways is being seriously challenged in modern scholarship. Nevertheless the ethnicist argument – that those who speak the old language and have grown out of the previous culture will tend to preserve things most sympathetic with their ancient roots – still gets plenty of traction. I certainly draw on it myself, for things like herb and stone lore, ways of dealing with the Locals, and snippets of charm language.

However for larger patterns, such as what a fire-sacrifice would have been like, I draw upon cultural comparison. Romans, Greeks, Persians and Balts all practiced fire-sacrifice, and all were in direct contact with some Celtic culture or another. Classical authors describe Celts as doing sacrifice in a way that they plainly recognized, and distinctly said that Germans didn’t do so. That makes me feel comfortable using comparative ritual to reconstruct a Druidic fire sacrifice. If I can reconstruct the greatest of the core rites of ancient religion, then I can devolve those principles both into smaller, folky charms and into solitary personal occultism. With twenty years of the religion part behind me I’m now proceeding into the personal occultism part.

In that vein the best news in occult scholarship of the last fifty years is the idea that medieval and early-modern grimoire practice retains substantial amounts of technique developed within a polytheistic, animistic (i.e. Pagan) model. When we remove the coercive, light-vs-dark mythology of later Christianity and replace it with a cooperative, respectful attitude to the spirits, borrowed from ATR and conceptually from pre-Christian Europe, the grimoires offer a clear and direct order of work by which to deal with the spirits. It’s a form that belongs to all those of European heritage (if not to everyone, since it has no ‘tribal’ context) and which has already been transformed between religious systems at least once. Thus it is ripe to be reclaimed by the polytheism in which it arose.

So, on I go, inventing new liturgy and trance tech to guide myself toward contacting the spirits I want to contact. As always, it is an artistic choice. I could be doing this through Kardecist spiritism, or any number of other systems, but I’ve gotten myself all bound up with my Gods, and that’s not something I plan to have time to re-do in this incarnation. At this late date I’m working with what I’ve developed. The grimoiric model provides an outline of what needs to be included in a grammar of magic. Following the outline would allow any aspiring mage to design her own system which, as RO said, may well be what we all do anyway. I certainly have.


Satyr Magos said...

Seeing your combination of serious scholarship and radical experimentation very exciting for me. I haven't had the chance to really dig into it yet, but from what I've seen so far the work you're doing looks really interesting and important.

I look forward to seeing more of it.

V.V.F. said...

I'm sorry if any of my commentary made you feel put on the defensive; it was not my intention to discourage you from exploring this kind of work.

IanC said...

Nah, no prob. Hell, I know I'm way out on a limb scholastically, so I feel a little defensive naturally. I'm hoping that the occult value will balance it out.