Thursday, January 2, 2020

Three Occult Books for Pagans

                I am an occult hobbyist as well as a Pagan religionist. In fact my entry into Neopaganism was entirely through the ‘occult’ reading of the 60s and 70s, in which ‘witchcraft’ made the short walk from academic study of medieval beliefs to modern Pagan worship and spellcraft. Worship and spellcraft – those two things were never far apart in my understanding of how this stuff works. To call and speak to a deity is to use a spell of invocation. Traditional Paganisms and surviving polytheisms freely combine simple devotional worship with esoteric specialized spiritual practices. The latter are what I understand as ‘magic’.
                So I read widely in modern occult literature, as well as in the anthropology and archaeology of ancient religion. I hope to learn from ancient religions the models and methods that sustained those spiritual patterns for millennia, and which ought to work for modern folks as well. From modern occult literature I hope to learn the technical details of how to successfully connect with the spirit and spiritual worlds.  The classics I read as a new student are now being well-supplemented by new material from the current generations of magicians.
                Modern occultism seems to be trending in directions compatible with traditional animism and polytheism. Many modern students are approaching magic from the assumption that a multitude of spirits inhabit the spiritual world, and that both spirituality and practical magic grow from relationships with those beings. The thinking is moving far beyond the spirit-catalogs of early-modern grimoires, driven by both ‘shamanism’ and by reference to such surviving systems as the post-West-African sects of the New World. By gaining a vantage-point from outside the west, magicians are discerning the spiritist and animist base beneath the heavy layers of Christianization in western magic. In application, we see magicians creating methods of building relationship with spirits, employing styles of conjuring and esoteric practice that draw on ancient and traditional European sources while learning from living systems.
                Here are three publications that illustrate the trend, and which provide a great deal of practical guidance as well as useful modeling for your ongoing magical practice. They all are products of the ‘occult’ community more than of the Neopagan, and each has a particular focus, but all of them offer many lessons and clues for anyone seeking to develop a practice in modern magic.

Holy Daimon -  Frater Acher; Scarlet Imprint, 2018
                Students of western occultism are likely to be familiar with the concept which turn-of-the-20th-century occultism called “the Holy Guardian Angel”. The notion proceeds most directly from the famous “Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage” – an early-modern treatise of mystical and ritual magic. In the hands of that culture the HGA (often so-called) resembled a Roman Catholic or Anglican Angel of the common type. Pagan students may be less familiar with recent research which demonstrates that the conjuring of and communion with a personal spirit-ally who connected the magician with the divine is a technique traceable to the very earliest remnants of Pagan magic available to us.

                The front section of Frater Acher’s book summarizes quite a lot of legwork on the topic. He describes the place of ‘supernatural assistant’ or ‘personal daimon’ beings in three Indo-European (mostly) cultures – the Chaldeans, the Zoroastrian Persians, and the Greeks. He teases out both the thread that intends to conjure a ‘familiar’ or ‘supernatural assistant’, and that which seeks contact with an appointed agent of divine wisdom. Both of these threads are spun together in the notion of the HGA. Students with a solid foundation in ancient cultures will be shown some unusual by-ways, seldom examined by mainstream mythography.
                The second section of the book is the author’s journal of the magical working by which they established formal contact with their Holy Daimon. His process is a retreat similar to that recommended in the famous Book of Sacred Magic – several months of increasingly monastic withdrawal from common life and company (including, it seems, his wife) and formal purification, invocation, and mystical meditation. He recounts both his interior process and some practical details of how he managed the retreat.
                The third section amounts to the author’s mystical and spiritual understandings, and advice to students. The stages of the work are listed as “trust; joy; darkness; encounter”. The chapter provides a suggestive map of the author’s understanding of the psycho-spiritual process of the work. There is precious little formal thought about mystical and spiritual internal process in context of western occultism – nice to read some, whatever one thinks of the assertions.
                If this book does no more than inform on the lore of the Holy Daimon, it is worth the (original) price (watch for paperback re-issues, or buy the e-editions). If it inspires some to undertake the spiritual work it describes, so much the better.

Living Spirits: A Guide to Magic in a World of Spirits -  
BJ Swain; independently published, 2019
                This book may be the most paradigmatic text I have yet seen of the sort of New Magic I’m discussing. It combines modern understandings of grimoire magic, familiarity with traditional Wiccan and Neopagan forms; world magic and Spiritism, and modern Pagan reconstruction, polytheism and animism. It does so in a well-ordered outline, packed with detail both scholastic and experiential. Can you tell I like it?
The book begins without apology by addressing spirits as essentially objective beings with which the magician builds relationship. The author uses the European Grimoires of the Solomonic  family as a default for discussion, and early chapters directly address the vocabulary and methods of that school. However this runs parallel with discussion of the devotional approach to spirits, and the author generally rejects coercive or oppositional approaches to the spirits, even if conjuring those that old books call ‘demons’. As to that, the author provides ongoing discussion of the nature and classification of spirits, without attempting any organized hierarchy or chart.
Chapters discuss work with Ancestors, and with elementals and ‘nature spirits’. There is a chapter on the idea of intermediary spirits or ‘gatekeepers’, about which the author reaches an interesting conclusion based on grimoire spirit-charts. The Holy Guardian Angel gets a discussion, which pairs well with the above book. Chapters discuss other categories of spirits that have traditionally been conjured by magicians, including a chapter of ‘Fairy’ conjuration. The author focuses mainly on what felt to me like a Pagan sensibility, but does not limit himself to pre-Christian forms. Be prepared to encounter discussion of traditional Christian ritual and magical forms as well.
The ‘theory’ chapters in the front of the book also include a few full ritual scripts –for conjuring the gatekeepers to send a spirit for your will; a rite to install a devotional image; and a necromantic rite based on the tale of Tiresias. These are presented in such a way as to be adaptable to a variety of framing rites and ritual styles.
The theory chapters end about halfway through the book’s 390+ pages, and the remainder is filled with a spellbook using techniques referenced in the text. This begins with spells and talismans drawn from grimoire tradition, including seven planetary talismans. The section on ‘Southern Conjure’ (a nicely culturally-neutral designation…) applies the book’s ideas on spirits to several central techniques of traditional spellcraft. The ritual section concludes with two group-rituals, including a formula for a scrying-by-conjuration group rite.
Whether you’re a devotional Pagan interested in magical arts, or an occultist seeking to build relationship with spirits, this book provides a solid modern guide.

Ferocious – A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult; Theion Publishing 2019
                Far from being the ‘Yoga of Sacred Sex’, or whatever, traditional Tantra in India offers systems of worship, meditation and ritual magic comparable to the best efforts of western magicians. Tantra is one of the trunks of the great tree of Indic religions often called “Hinduism”. It is often secret, often transgressive, but always present even if in the background of Dharmic spiritual work. While ‘Tantra Yoga’ may be presented in a high-minded way by some teachers, in popular culture ‘a tantra’ is often ‘a grimoire’ or spellbook – a popular manual intended to allow householders to use its magic. The authors describe this book as an effort to produce such a manual in English.
                This book lists no personal author – rather it presents itself as the result of a circle of Tantric practitioners. It is an eminently practical book, undecorated by elevated prose, with which a student could begin a practice with the spirits it presents. Unfortunately for some readers it is available only in a quality hardback edition, for some tens of dollars. The edition is lovely in fact – my habit is to try to spend such money only on quality editions of information I find truly valuable – in this case I got a win.
                The book opens with chapters introducing and contextualizing  the Tantric tradition. The spirits of this text – the Seven Mothers – exemplify Tantric moral ambiguity – they are wrathful goddesses, some fearsome in form, some beautiful. The book discusses the place and meaning of wrathful entities, and the work of Tantra as something stranger than the common devotions of religion.
                The authors are at pains to discuss the cross-cultural and open nature of tantric practice, and of the Sapta Matrika cults in particular. Acknowledging the concern for cultural misappropriation, they point out that the work they described is, within Indic culture, open to all regardless of caste, social position, gender or ethnic heritage. It requires no initiations, and the mantras circulate freely in written form. It is clear that the authors have been careful to offer material that is legitimately available to all readers.
                The chapter on ritual forms and practice offers a good general introduction with some details specific to the tradition. Once again, familiarity with the previous book in this review would help students set up the kind of practice that is taught in this.
                The bulk of the book is given to the descriptions of the Seven Mothers. These tantric goddesses present an interesting study in how polytheism expresses itself in practice. In Tantric metaphysics the male aspects of deities are accompanied by their ‘shakti’ – a womanly expression who is considered the ‘active force’ of the deity – the power that actually acts in the world. For that reason such shaktis are often invoked by magicians. So here we find Aindri, the Shakti of Indra; Vaishnavi, that of Vishnu; even Brahmi, the Shakti of Brahma. Some of the Seven have freestanding cults, while others occur mainly in the set of seven. Some are ‘acceptable’ to mainstream religion, others far less so. The text often ventures into interesting discussions of how these figures express apparently ‘other’ deities, and about the distinction/bond between a Shakti and the various ‘wives’ of the gods.
                Each of the Seven is introduced in detail, with lore and discussion of how she is worshiped/worked-with in the traditional setting. Notes are provided on proper specific symbolism and ritual customs. Four mantras are provided for each – a simple name-mantra, a slightly longer offering mantra, a ‘Gayatri’ mantra in the proper 24-syllable metre, and one more. This last Mantra is called a ‘dhyanam’ mantra, meaning ‘for meditation’, and it is a formal description of the visualization of the Matrika. This is one of the most clear examples I have seen for the formalization of a visualized image of a spirit in ceremony.
                I have been dipping into Tantric studies for some while. ‘Ferocious’ is one the most clear and straightforward introductions to practical Tantra I have yet seen.

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