Jason Miller recently had a clever and thorough post on the debate between those who think that fictional beings are the same as gods, or can be used the same way in magic. He writes:
We not only do not currently know for sure the nature of what we deal with, but we currently do not have the capacity to know for sure the nature of what we deal with. Therefore every operating theory, including the ones above, might be wrong. Keep this in mind whether you are doing traditional work or experimenting.
I was thinking of that post today while I was going for a walk. Unlike Jason, I am a pagan — specifically a Theurgist [ETA: This was a bit of sloppy reading on my part, as Jason doesn't say he's not a pagan, only that his blog isn't a pagan blog]. Often, when I go for a walk, I like to pray. So I got out of my car at the forest preserve, headed into the woods, and thought “Okay, now, whom shall I pray to today?”
I had to laugh at myself. That’s not a question most people ask, being monotheists. I finally decided I wanted to be a little edgy, and pray to Ares, a god not often prayed to in ancient times.
Then, I had a second question: “How shall I pray today?”
Of course, there’s the traditional sort of address a god by name kind of thing, and then talk to them. “Oh, Hermes, hear my prayer. If ever I have burned sweet scents to you or praised your name in writing or made offering to you at a crossroad, hear my prayer, for you are able. . . . ” and so on. Very traditional, kind of formulaic, but effective. Wouldn’t work with Ares, though, because it’d be something like “Oh, Ares, hear my prayer. If ever I have largely ignored you . . . “
Then there’s contemplation. Build up an image of the god, carry it with you, and just contemplate it without words, or maybe just repeating the names of the god.
Then there’s one of my new favorites: the elenchus. I’m pretty sure this prayer isn’t at all traditional, because I made it up, but it’s kind of awesome. You begin by contemplating the god, and then you present a problem to the god, and imagine what question that god would ask you to get to the heart of the problem. This is, without some serious magical oomph, “just pretend,” not a real invocation. But it can be startling the sorts of insights you receive. Just don’t fall into the mistake of asking the god questions: he or she will ask the questions, thank you very much.
So I thought I’d give the elenchus a try to Ares. So I contemplated his image until I felt his presence and said, “I’m a little uncomfortable praying to you because I know the ancients kind of — well, loathed you.” “Why do you think they hated a god? Wouldn’t that be suicidal?” “I think they had to recognize your power, as a god of force and violence, but they didn’t have to approve of the violence.” “And did their disapproval of violence lead them to eschew it?” “Not at all. So maybe they weren’t loathing you, but their own hypocrisy.” And so on.
I had my chaos magic phase, as did everyone in the ’90s, and I learned a lot of valuable techniques. But I also tried like everyone to invoke Spock, and I’ll tell you something: there’s no there there. Spock is just an image, a facade, and maybe with enough practice and work you could get a god to inhabit that image — but why bother? Hermes is real. The work has been done.
And so, at the end of my elenchus, I felt like something had been accomplished. No, I don’t think I spoke to the god or that he spoke to me, other than in the broadest sense. I’m not going to write down our conversation as a new Scripture of Ares. But I felt something there, something enlivening and powering my contemplation, that just isn’t present if I imagine a similar conversation with a fictional being. And perhaps that’s just me, or perhaps it’s the god. I’m not sure it’s evidence of anything, other than how I best work. But I do feel closer to understanding that troublesome god, and coming closer to the gods is about eighty percent of the work of theurgy.