Archive for the Magical Systems Category

Want to Help Me Write a Book?

Posted in Magical Systems, Techniques, Writing on April 18, 2014 by P. Dunn

I’m toying with ideas for my next book.  I’d like to do some research among those who practice magic.  Would you be interested in being interviewed for this possible book?  This may involve sharing some of your magical successes and failures, and perhaps trying a few techniques and reporting back.  There may be several follow-up interviews, as well.  If the book is published and I use your experiences, you will receive credit (either to your name or a pseudonym) and your experiences will be cited in the text.  I’ll also send you a free copy of the book when it comes out (but don’t hold your breath: it takes at least a year to write a book, and another year for it to come out).  I can’t guarantee that I’ll use everyone’s experiences.  But if nothing else, we may be able to share some ideas and techniques, even if they don’t end up as a book.

Feel free to join in whether you’re very advanced in magic or a brand-new beginner.  The book I’m envisioning is an advanced book, but I want beginners to be able to benefit from it.

If interested, email me at pee double-yew dunn at gee mail dot com.  And be patient with me; it’s a busy time of the year for me.

“Hot” and “Cool” running magic

Posted in Magical Systems, Techniques, Theurgy, Weird on September 2, 2013 by P. Dunn

I don’t remember where I read about the distinction, but one idea that has haunted my work since I learned about it is the concept of “hot” and “cool” work.

Essentially, “cool” work is preparatory, interior, and what we might call theurgic.  It consists of things like offerings, meditations, regular visualizations — essentially, all the stuff you do to prepare yourself and stay ready.  It’s tuning the piano, practicing scales.  Or it’s sharpening the knives, seasoning the pans.

“Hot” work, though, is the practical magic.  It consists of work for specific, measurable aims: getting a job, getting laid, getting that copy of that rare book you want.  It’s playing a song, or cooking a meal.

There needs to be the appropriate balance between the two, and one thing it took me quite a while to learn is that this balance changes depending on time as well as personality.  Some magicians are very “hot.”  They do a lot of practical work, for nearly everything.  Others are very “cool.”  They prepare a lot, spend most of their time and effort praying, making offerings, meditating.  That balance is right for them.

Some are too “hot.”  They’re the chaos mages I knew in my misspent youth who seemed to have a sigil on every available surface.  I’m not sure they ever got anything done, though, because they were trying to do everything.  I mean, these kids couldn’t . . . um . . . charge the sigils fast enough.  And they heaped scorn on theurgy or illumination magic as “not practical” and “not measurable.”  They said things like, and I quote, “I fired off a tight little sigil . . . “, a phrase that contributed a lot to my abandoning chaos magic.  To this day that phrase — and the visualization that comes with it — makes me go “urp.”

Some, on the other hand, are too “cool,” the armchair magicians we all love to scorn.  The thing is, a real armchair magician isn’t just cool.  They’re zero degrees Kelvin.  If all you do, ever, is make offerings, meditate, and practice elemental pore breathing, well, guess what?  You are a magician.  You might be too cool, but you’re not an armchair magician.  A real armchair magician does nothing but read.  And that poorly, because even active reading is good “cool” work.  (Hint, if you had to learn a language to read the text you’re working on, that’s “cool,” not armchair.  In my biased opinion.)

Then again, you might not be too cool.  That’s the thing it took me a while to figure out, because frankly, I am at best a tepid magician.  Partially, that’s a result of success.  There isn’t a whole lot I want more than for my life to continue in the same direction.  So most of my “practical” work is maintenance these days.  I’ve considered doing some limited work for a limited number of hand-selected clients, just to “warm” up a bit.  But — maybe that’s a bad idea.  Maybe I should be tepid.

The other thing that I’ve learned is that hot and cool move in cycles.  I’ve had hot periods (there was about a year of grad school in which I had enough magical stuff going on that I was regularly having odd magical experiences, and another year during my undergrad years when I was still into chaos magic and had enough weird shit in my dorm room to give the housing people at my University fits).  But I also have cool periods.  Right now is very much a cool period for me.  I’m keeping up my offerings, trying to maintain my meditation (I’m bad at that).

The trick is to find a balance that works for you.  How do you do that?  I don’t know; I just bumble around until I get too damned bored (then I know I’m too cool) or too damned weird (then I’m too hot).  What do you do?  Let me know in the comments.

Signs You Are a Magician

Posted in Magical Systems, Theurgy on August 4, 2013 by P. Dunn

Recently, Nick Farrell wrote a post in which he enumerated several signs that you’re not a real magician.  Some of these signs are things I agree with, but some I disagree with strongly, so I’d like to counter with my own short list of signs that you are in fact a magician, inspired by his post.

1.  You dress consciously in order to achieve the outcome you wish.  For some environments, that’s a suit and tie.  For others, it’s a t-shirt and jeans.  For yet others, it might be all black with a pentagram.  It depends on what you wish to achieve, and you recognize that clothes are potent symbols in our culture.  You don’t wear a toga to a job interview, unless togas are the expected attire at that job.

2.  You do regular magical work, balancing between “hot” or practical work and “cool” or preparatory work.  You don’t sneer at theurgy because it “isn’t practical,” because you know that it’s profoundly practical.  You also don’t sneer at results-based magic as beneath you, because you know that we live in this world.  The amount of time you spend doing work per day is irrelevant; some days it may be ten minutes, some days three hours.  You recognize that any practice as organic and personal as magic doesn’t lend itself to a schedule.

3.  Your life is better than it was, and getting better all the time, on all levels: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social, monetary, health, and so on.  Of course, you may have setbacks and bad things may happen; those are opportunities to show what you’re made of.  If you can deal with such things without falling apart, you’re doing well.

4.  You don’t blame magic for your relationship failures.  Sometimes relationships fail, sometimes they succeed.  Magic can help you have more meaningful relationships.

5.  You have some magical gear, but you don’t need it.  When you use it, you use it to help you work more efficiently, just like any tool.

6.  You talk, think, and practice occultism.  All three.

7.  You’re an interesting person, with varied interests.  If you don’t think a hobby is “worthy” because it isn’t magical, your imagination has failed you.  If you think hobbies are just ways to meet people, you have failed at being interesting enough to deserve to meet people.

8.  You have an active social life.  Many magicians are introverts, but even introverts have friends and a social life outside of their magical temple.  If your best friends are spirits, you are not succeeding at part of being human, which is being human among other humans.  You don’t need to be an extrovert, but you need to have some social contact with people you like, who like you.

9.  You recognize that a healthy person prioritizes their life, and can regard several things as important.  If you have kids, and they are not more important than magic, then you are a terrible magician and an awful person.

10.  You respect tradition, actual knowledge and wisdom, but test things yourself and engage in critical thinking.

11.  You understand that the difference between “physical” and “mental,” and the difference between “literal” and “figurative” are not easily delineated differences.  They are actually philosophically complex ideas.  You explore those ideas, not dismiss them.

12.  You think magic is about what you can get out of life, to make it more worthwhile and fulfilling, all the way up Maslow’s pyramid to the very top.

Ethics (3/3) — Virtue ethics

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems on July 15, 2013 by P. Dunn

Rather than rules or consequences, virtue ethics looks at the qualities that underly particular actions. If, for example, you are an honest person, you might rarely tell a lie.

As I said before, one of the favorite practices of professors of introduction to ethics is the hypothetical. One of the most famous hypothetical is this: you are harboring a Jew during WWII, and a Nazi soldier comes to your door. Do you give up the Jew to the Nazi, knowing that he will die most horribly, or do you lie to the Nazi and save the life?

A deontological view with a simple rules, like “thou shalt not lie,” says “You tell the truth. So sad, too bad.” Of course, most people espousing such moralities won’t actually say that. They either “bite the bullet” as we say in philosophy, or they find some reason that there, that rule does not apply. Neither satisfies me.

A teleologist fares a bit better: she says “Lie. Of course.” But lies often make people feel better. Should I then lie all the time? This doesn’t quite satisfy, because we have a sense that lying probably isn’t a good practice overall.

The aretologist (or Virtue Ethicist) says “I am an honest person, so I do not tend to lie. I am also a compassionate person, so I do not tend to encourage needless suffering. And furthermore, I am a just person, and the Nazis are unjust. So I lie. It’s a pity that I have to, but — well, frankly, um, duh?”

Virtue ethics isn’t about following rules or attending to the calculus of consequences, but about what you are. It’s about becoming a good person, even if that means study and practice.

Each virtue is a balancing act. For example, justice is a balance between mercy and severity. Courage is a balance between the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. And each virtue requires the skill or quality of phronesis, of wisdom, to find that balance.

One of the reasons I think virtue ethics is relevant to the magician is that even the word, virtue, means power. Being a good person, developing these characteristics, makes one capable as a human being and thus more capable as a magician.

The Wiccan rede isn’t an artifact of a virtue ethic, but there are four magical virtues describes by Levi:

To Know: The virtue of knowledge, of knowing what one must do, and what one must not, and how to achieve one’s aims, as well as to know oneself as human. The balance between ignorance and intellectual pride.
To Will: The virtue of resolution, of setting one’s mind and clearing one’s thoughts of distraction, of basic discipline. This is the balance between weakness and grit-toothed grim gym-teacher pain.
To Dare: This is the virtue of courage. Whenever I see someone new to magic surprised or startled by magical success, I think of this virtue, the balance between excuses and obsession.
To Keep Silent: The virtue of circumspection. We don’t have to keep everythign in magic a secret anymore, but sometimes we must just shut up in the face of the ineffable. This is the balance between haughty obfuscation and blatherskite.

I’d love to see more attention paid to virtue ethic in magic, and while I respect the rede, I respect the witch’s pyramid a lot more, because it serves as a practical set of virtues to aim toward in my own life, even if I don’t always achieve them.

A Grimoire of Time

Posted in Good Books, Magical Systems, Techniques on July 6, 2013 by P. Dunn

Jason Miller gets — and deserves — a lot of my admiration.  He’s a thinking magician, which is great, but more importantly he does stuff.  Creative, innovative, and practical stuff.

Therefore, you need to buy his new chapbook, Advanced Planetary Magic, which I have been honored with a review copy of, and let me say, I’m blown away.  There are two main parts of this book that you need, as a practicing magician.

First, there are the seals, which at first I glanced at with a “Oh, look, Agrippa’s seals, but all swirly,” until I realized that they are graphically encoded rituals in their own rights.  Look at them: if you draw those seals in the air you are performing a ritual dance and invocation of that planetary force.  Try it!

Second, and my favorite part of the book and why I’ll be coming back to it again and again, he offers forty-nine short but powerful calls of the planets for each combination of magical hours and days.  These things are mind-blowingly awesome.  They are essentially a grimoire, not of spirits, but of time itself.  They can act as initial invocation of planetary forces, or as full-fledged rites.  I have had limited to time experiment with them since getting the review copy, but so far I am impressed and I am hoping to hear of other people’s experiences as they work with these calls.

Ethics (1/3): Deontological Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems, Paganism on June 20, 2013 by P. Dunn

The first ethical system I wish to address is the Deontological position, or what we might call “rules” morality. (I am using ethics and morality interchangeably in these posts, although there are those who make a sometimes-useful distinction between them.)

Those who subscribe to this moral system devise a system of rules, deriving their powers from some authority (gods, God, pure reason) that will define their duties and prohibitions. The prototypical example is, of course, the Ten Commandments, which offer ten basic rules for how to live: each is quite specific, and tries to be as clear as it can, as if they were legal contracts. For example:

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Clear as a bell. Of course, we run into a slight issue here: define your terms. Is it adultery if my spouse knows about it and condones it? It is adultery if my spouse abuses and degrades me? Is it adultery if my spouse leaves me but won’t grant me a divorce? And so on. You can find vast reams of scholarship about what is and is not acceptable according to such laws. A huge slice of Muslim and Judaic philosophy is just that: defining terms in order to make the commandments clear. Christianity rather less so, but Christianity is no less deontological: it just has a rather simpler rule.

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

And yet, look at the hither and thither that goes into defining who your neighbor is or isn’t, what it means to love the Lord with all your heart, and so on. People claim to uphold this rule who picket funerals: there’s clearly a heck of a lot of wiggle room. (A lot more people uphold this rule who are kind, generous, and Christlike, so — it’s not a bad rule.)

We run into another problem when we try to define rules. For one thing, how many do we need? For another, how can we define a rule that covers all possible situations? We can’t. A favorite technique of philosophy professors is to give their students situations, scenarios, in which these rules come into conflict, so that in trying to resolve that conflict students will find the underlying rules that govern their unexamined moral intuitions. This can be a very disorienting exercise. I remember in college, one young woman started crying when she realized that two of her moral rules were in direct conflict.

There’s another, logical problem. Where does the authority that defines these rules come from? Many religions Deontologists say “God.” Then we can ask, “If God breaks His own rule, is he then morally bad?” If they say “yes,” then that implies that moral rule comes from a higher authority than God. If they say “no,” that means that the moral rule is essentially arbitrary: God could just as well have said “Thou shalt commit adultery” as “thou shalt not.” Neither is a palatable position for most theists.

Not all deontologists are theists, though. Kant tries to establish a set of moral rules based on reason. You can go look up the results if you like reading translated German. The boiled-down version is this commandment: An act is moral if you could rationally will it to become a general rule. So, if I give someone twenty bucks, I could rationally will that everyone give money to the poor, so that act is right. If I stab someone in the nose, I could not rationally will that everyone start stabbing people in the nose, or I’d get stabbed in the nose! We run into a situation, though, where defining the act determines its morality. If I define homosexuality as having sex with only the same sex, then that act is wrong by this rule, because I cannot rationally will that everyone engage only in homosexual activity, or the species would die out. On the other hand, I cannot rationally will that we make homosexuality illegal or even think ill of it, because in doing so society will miss out on many contributions (think Allen Turing, Walt Whitman, um, me). And heterosexuality is also wrong, because I can’t rationally will that everyone only have sex with the opposite gender, ’cause I don’t want to be forced into what would essentially be a coercive relationship!

We see Deontology in magic when we see prohibitions. “Never curse anyone!” Okay, that’s good advice, especially for a beginner in magic, because curses are difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant to do — but never? What about if they’re hurting someone and it’s the only way to stop them? Can we curse a serial killer so that they get caught faster? Or we see a rule like “Never evoke a Goetic demon!” Again, good advice: dangerous, almost always overkill, and almost always unnecessary because just as powerful and less dangerous options are available. But . . . never? I have to confess that Buer did me a solid. Never work with the dead; it’s necromancy! Um, there are a lot of Tantric practitioners and other traditional paths that would disagree with that.

We also see it when we see “always.” “Always banish!” “Always work in a circle!” My favorite: “always move clockwise in the circle!” Well — why? If I invoke a God, I should end by telling it to bugger off please. How does that work? And I know quite a few successful root doctors who never step into a magical circle.

Often these magical rules assert the authority of tradition, even if that tradition is just sort of made up out of nothing.

Obviously, I am not sympathetic to this ethical approach, even though it dominates a lot of our culture’s thinking about morality. The logical problems with it are just too dire for me to leap over, and while it appeals to think that there is a set formula of rules that we can cling to, I just don’t think there are. I think there are reasons, whys, and hows, and whens. But “always” and “never” make me look for loopholes.

Ethics and Magic

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems, Paganism on June 15, 2013 by P. Dunn

Donald Michael Kraig writes a thorough analysis of the Wiccan rede, comparing it in his conclusion to the Tantric concept of karma. He points out that literally following the rede would be practically impossible, and he asks:

So what do you think? Is it time to abandon the Wiccan Rede and Three-Fold Law as unobtainable and unrealistic goals?

I don’t accept the Wiccan rede as the basis for my ethical system, and I agree with 90% of what DMK writs in this post. But . . .

I can quibble a bit with some of his reasoning (I love me my quibbles). There is the assumption here that the “right” reading of the rede is the literal. He doesn’t say that, and I doubt that he intends to assume it, but it’s a warrant of his argument that “literal” reading is correct reading. Of course, the fallacy of literal reading is the very problem of fundamentalism. In reality, there’s no such thing as literal reading: all texts require interpretation. Even recipes require some interpretation. So when a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew says “the scripture says this in plain language” I always have to tilt my head a bit.

I have heard readings of the rede that do not run into the problem of over-literalism, such as “an it harm none, do as you will” means “If you look at an action, and it harms no one, and you want to do it, go for it. If, however, it harms someone, you need to think about it quite a bit more.” This reading is not stretching the text or trying to “get around it”: after all, the rede doesn’t say “An it harms none, don’t do it.” One could argue, quite rightly, that reading it as if it does is actually misreading it: it’s not a prohibition or a commandment. It’s a rede.

As for me, I’m not Wiccan. And I think DMK is absolutely 100% right when he writes:

One of the challenges of these traditions is that in some instances they are not thoroughly considered. An individual tradition may leave out large swathes of concepts and limit themselves to small sections of reality. There is often the worship of deities, the practice of magick, divination, and healing, the celebration of festivals and holidays, but little else. As a result, for many people their spiritual tradition is merely a part-time practice rather than a way of living. (I wouldn’t limit this to Pagans, either.)

So how do we consider ethics? In my next three posts, I will discuss three ethical approaches and how they can be adopted — or not — by magical practitioners.

The New Age

Posted in Magical Systems on March 29, 2013 by P. Dunn

I remember the first time I heard the clever little saying, “New Age rhymes with sewage.”  I thought, “yeah, that’s so apt, because not only does it allow me to feel superior to others’ beliefs, but it also encapsulates my beliefs about the world in a clever almost-rhyme.”

The New Age movement is an outgrowth of the New Thought movement of the late 19th century.  New Thought taught, among many other things we’ll get to in a moment, that our thoughts created our reality, and that sickness was the result of wrong-thinking.  If you thought negative thoughts, you would manifest negative reality.

This kind of new thought is intimately tied to the philosophies of the Theosophists, and we postmodern occultists owe a debt to this position, as well as that of the newer New Age movement.

If I had to summarize New Age off the top of my head, doing no sort of fieldwork or anything, I suppose I’d put it this way.  New Agers believe a constellation of the following beliefs, more or less:

1.  The world is entering a new historical period, in which people will become in some way more spiritual and less material.

2.  Thoughts create our reality, and you choose — consciously or unconsciously — the reality you wish to live in by thinking certain thoughts.

3.  God is more of an impersonal but benevolent force.

4.  Reincarnation.

5.  Aliens?  Angels?  New evolution of humanity?  Any number or cluster of such things insofar as it appeals to the individual.

For the most part, I have no particular objection to any of this, other than perhaps the lack of critical thinking sometimes evidenced in the last one, which seems to sweep whole shelves of nonsense into the shopping cart indiscriminately.  But really, even that — when you think about it, it’s just saying “Here is a set of metaphors or symbols that explain something to me.”  Seen that way, belief in aliens is no more odd than belief in gods or belief in economic systems.  I don’t have to buy it to respect your right to plop down your quarter.

The only serious beef I have with New Agers is the idea that we choose our own reality to such an extent that we are therefore responsible for bad stuff that happens to us.  Most people, when pressed, will admit that this kind of blaming the victim lacks compassion and back away from it, but others will simply bite the philosophical bullet, saying “they must have done something terrible in a past life.”  I once heard someone suggest that the only reason an acquaintance came down with cancer is that she wasn’t “manifesting love” in her life.

That is some low stuff right there.  It’s a pernicious idea, but not necessarily embodied in the teaching itself.  After all, we often do experience misfortune because we have made choices that led to it.  That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily culpable for that misfortune or somehow deserving of it.  And it can help to endure misfortune to see it as a lesson, but that doesn’t mean that we should lecture people about the lessons they should be learning.

The problem arises when people say such things as “it must be her karma” to mean “thank god it’s not mine!”  That’s fleeing from human compassion into religion, and it’s just as bad as when any other religious person does it.  That tendency to find a reason why it couldn’t happen to you is where the real problem lies.

So New Age might rhyme with lots of stuff, but the snooty superiority of looking down upon it because it doesn’t match my particular standards of critical thinking . . . well, I’m just out of the energy for that sort of thing.  Yes, there can be seriously pernicious philosophical implications to an unsophisticated reading of some of these ideas; that’s true of pretty much everything from Capitalism to Christianity, my own Paganism very much included.  I see no reason to single out the New Age movement, and really, can’t we just find a better rhyme?


Ephesia Grammata

Posted in Magical Systems, Speculation, Techniques on September 3, 2011 by P. Dunn

From diverse ancient sources, we know that on the cult statue of Artemis at Ephesus, there were six words inscribed in Greek script:

askion kataskion lix tetrax damnameneus aisia

What these six words mean is a matter of considerable speculation, if they mean anything at all.  They may simply be barbarous words of invocation, devoid of meaning, although their use is clear.  They were a spoken phalactary, a protective spell, an alexipharmika.

Chester McCown suggests that they may be the names of six separate and distinct daimones.  I’m not so sure, other than in the sense that a magical word is often treated as a being in its own right by classical magicians.  If they are a list of magical beings, then perhaps they represent six daimon servants of Artemis.

If you wish to experiment with the grammata, they are pronounced as follows (at least, approximately — it’s hard to describe another language’s pronunciation without using IPA):

askion (/a/ and /i/ as in Spanish, short o, accent on the first syllable)

kataskion (same as above, accent on second syllable)

lix (short i)

tetrax (short e, accent on final syllable)

damnameneus (short e, eu like a blend between an eh and the French u, accent on last syllable)

aisia (vowels as in Spanish, accent on first syllable)

Signs of Success

Posted in Magical Systems, Speculation, Techniques on August 28, 2011 by P. Dunn

DMK, as usual, has an interesting post on his blog about the signs of success in ritual: not that you get what you want, but hints that you’ve done magic before anything manifests at all.  He describes two signs: a change in temperature, and a change in time perception.

I have never experienced either of those things in ritual.  No, not even the warping of time perception, which is common enough in day-to-day life.

What I have experienced that lets me know I’m on the right track is a subjective sensation of intense euphoria.  It’s similar, but not quite the same, as the euphoria I feel at having finished a creative project.  I think it might be related to the idea of Flow.  But again, I’ve experienced Flow while writing or hiking and this isn’t quite the same.

The other indicator is a striking coincidence.  Usually it’s not so direct as do a spell for money, find a crumpled up twenty on the sidewalk.  That’d make me think maybe I didn’t specify quantity clearly enough.  But say you do a spell for money, then immediately turn on the radio and hear this:

It’s not unusual for people related to the purpose of the spell to call out of the blue, or for objects somehow related to the goal in my house to fall or end up in odd places.  Once, a wand I was working on for a friend fell from a table during a ritual invocation; on another occasion, after a particularly intense invocation, I heard a person talking on their cell phone in such a way that everything they said was exactly relevant to what I had asked for.  Obviously, these things can be coincidences.  Vibrations from the nearby train may have jostled the wand from the table.  I might have noticed a conversation that seemed relevant, but not noticed the ones that weren’t.  Confirmation bias seems a likely cause.  And yet . . . in the midst of it, it’s hard not to see a link.

So — temperature changes?  Nope.  Time stretching or compression?  No.  Visual manifestations?  Almost never.  Not for me, anyway.  For me, it’s synchronicity and euphoria.  What is it for you?


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