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Magic is the Revolution

In attempting to draw out the much needed political message and insights of a pagan theology and metaphysics (here, here, and here) in previous posts I have come to concern myself more fully with a certain difficulty most theology in general, including pagan theology, faces in its application to politics. Put simply, most theology has come to us shining through the lens of monarchical times. We find in it, whether it be monotheistic or otherwise, kings and queens, servants and masters, and generally all the trappings of hidebound hierarchies. I have often argued, primarily in debates with friends or students, that monotheism has unavoidable tendencies that conflict with egalitarian or liberty loving societies. As far back as Plato’s Republic it has been argued that a just society must mirror the structures of cosmic order. If the universe is ruled by one mighty king, lord, etc. why should our human societies be any different? In this regard, the divine right of kings is the natural and appropriate politics of western monotheism and the devil is the natural hero of any voice of dissent (a fact which it seems on some level John Milton knew very well).

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton's Paradise Lost c. 1866

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan 1866

Byzantine monumental Church mosaics, Monreale in Sicily from the late 12th century.

Paganism and Hierarchy

As should be clear from my earlier posts about paganism and politics, I think things stand rather better with paganism than monotheism in regards to the glorification of authoritarian centralized rule. Paganism in all its forms is focused on the multitude, the diverse, and tends to prioritize council and collective compromise or productive disagreement. Insofar as this is true it internalizes the forces of dissent and chaos rather than simply vilifying and externalizing them as occurs in the case of the devil. Loki is an important, and often redemptive, figure in Asgard despite his role in Ragnarök and Dionysus will inevitably come to overthrow kings (both earthly and Olympian) with his revels yet remains a respected figure. Indeed this is likely one reason why the trickster archetype in paganism gets so much attention, it clearly sets off pagan religions from the more authoritarian cosmic tyrannies found in monotheism.

Despite this, Prometheus still ends up bound and there can be no doubt the image of Zeus and Jupiter lent force to the authoritarian political factions throughout Greece and Rome. In similar ways the glorification of power and might within elements of pagan mythology partially accounts for the abhorrent occurrence of nationalist, fascist, and racist cooption of paganism. Whether in Olympus, Asgard, or the court of Math Mathonwy all is not well.

Tablet_of_Shamash_relief

The Sun God Shamash at rule.

Magic and Religion

Gershom Scholem, the celebrated scholar of Jewish theology, history, and especially Kabbalah, set up a complex understanding of the interplay and tension between religion, mysticism, and magic. From his view, religion consists of a codified orthodoxy of practices and teachings while mysticism represents a return to the mythic dimensions from which such practices and teachings took their origin. Mysticism, then, rests perpetually on the border of heresy but at the same time embodies the creative energy that first motivated the religion – the possibility of revelation and direct experience of the divine. Such experience of the divine tends to manifest in either the transmission of new rites and teachings, clearly falling into the camp of heresy in respect to any existing religion, or in a reinterpretation of previous religious doctrine in a manner that tends towards a sort of crypto-heresy which one can often “get away with”. Mysticism is, in this way, vital for the life of a religion – since it reinvigorates sedimented ritual forms – while also deeply dangerous for it.

One of the strengths of mysticism is that it frequently, as in the case of Kabbalah as presented by Scholem, steps down from the abstract heights of official theology in order to engage with the actual concerns of everyday people. This tendency to unite mystical experience of the divine with the everyday worldly concerns of the people, in rejection of the more esoteric concerns of the priestly classes, contains an impetus that can push even further beyond the realm of mystical heresy and into an embrace of magic. The Kabbalist creates the golem for power, for protection, or even just to carry messages to other practitioners. Magic, then, for Scholem is the application of mystical and theological insight to worldly problems. As Scholem directly puts it, for example in the first lecture in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, both the theologian/philosopher/priest and the mystic are aristocratic and elitist types. It is in the move to magic that this aristocratic tendency is broken, at the cost of heresy. Scholem’s own aristocratic horror in the face of this is apparent:

It would be idle to deny that Kabbalah lost much of its magnificence where it was forced to descend from the pinnacles of theoretical speculation to the plane of ordinary thinking and acting. The dangers which myth and magic present to the religious consciousness, including that of the mystic, are clearly shown in the development of Kabbalism. If one turns to the writings of great Kabbalists one seldom fails to be torn between alternate admiration and disgust… I have said before that Jewish philosophy had to pay a high price for its escape from the pressing questions of real life. But Kabbalism, too, has had to pay for its success. Philosophy came dangerously near to losing the living God; Kabbalism, which set out to preserve Him, to blaze a new and glorious trail to Him, encountered mythology on its way and was tempted to lose itself in its labyrinth.

Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, First Lecture

There are times when the horror of scholars, theologians, and priests is our best guide. If our concern is with the elitist, aristocratic, monarchical, and generally authoritarian nature of various theologies, religion’s own internalized force which pushes against these aspects should be of great interest to us. In whatever context we wish to look, from Taoism to Paganism to Catholicism, this antiauthoritarian force appears in the guise of magic. There are those – the witch, the goes, the sorcerer – who take on the mantle of myth and manage to live amidst the gods while on earth, bringing divine or infernal power to the people.

"Magic Circle" by John William Waterhouse 1886

“Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse 1886

Reflections on the History of Magic

Despite the attention that aristocratic magicians in Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Victorian Europe tend to get, one thing is very clear from the history of the occult – it has almost always been a practice of the common people. From Ancient Greek goetes traveling about and offering assistance, sometimes for pay, to the everyday folk of Greece to a contemporary Italian Catholic I know who buried a statue of Saint Joseph upside down in the yard to facilitate the sale of a house, magical practice has rested firmly in the domain of lower and middle class concerns. This, more than anything else, has led to the general negative image occult practice has had throughout history, for nothing is prone to provoke ire from the priestly classes, the wealthy, and the powerful as swiftly as granting the common people access to the power to change their circumstances.

Indeed the ethical rejection of magical practices is closely tied to an ethics that understands legitimate power as resting in the hands of a central authoritative ruler figure, thus the horror which occurs when one tries to “steal the power of god”. Magic, on the other hand, suggests in both practice and word that the people themselves have a right to power and a full abundant life.

Within Ancient Greece the local magical practices and the goes who both drew on and added to these were frequently in conflict with the Olympian religion of the ruling classes. As documented well by Stratton-Kent in his Geosophia, the original and older religion of the local people in Greece was opposed by the official state religion that was used to help unify the political forms of the city-state. In this transformation gods change meaning and form. For example, Apollo transformed from a chthonic god of warfare and plague to a solar deity and Hephaestus transformed from one of the most important local gods with more temples than any other of the Greek gods to being a lesser and comical figure serving the table on Olympus and provoking mockery from his fellows. There was clearly in the ancient world local religious traditions closely conjoined to magical practices aimed at worldly ends in conflict with state sanctioned cults seeking to limit the power granted by the gods to the hands of the few. We see similar tensions throughout the ancient world, eventually reaching an ironic inversion in the local countryside maintenance of old polytheism in resistance to the Christianity adopted and demanded by the Roman capital. This last conflict gave us the word pagan, from the latin word for rural but used demeaningly much like our term “hick”, as a reminder of our localized antiauthoritarian roots.

We see a similar structure to the conflict between official state religious power and local magical practice in the cunning craft and witchcraft of Europe and, though in a very different context and developed through very different pressures, in the still exceptionally vital Afro-Caribbean magico-religious traditions. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the distinct character of the Petwa Loa of Haitian Vodou. These are a class of spirits with a particularly violent and forceful nature that derive from the time of the Haitian revolution. Far from sinister, they are part of the force that won freedom for the enslaved in the only slave revolt to result in the founding of a free state. The magic of the Petwa is revolutionary magic par excellence and that of one of history’s most terribly oppressed peoples.

No consideration of the identification of magic with the oppressed would be complete without keeping in mind that it has often been the province of women in contexts when they are denied official social power and freedom. Indeed the mythological image of the witch is, more than anything else, that of a powerful woman in a world that fears and seeks to destroy nothing so much as that. Far from being condemned for using demonic power, female witches were condemned for having any power at all.

Certainly, from time to time, we come upon a John Dee, a MacGregor Mathers, an Aleister Crowley – we come upon more aristocratic figures who inevitably become better known due to social privilege, education, and access to publishing, press, and political power – but the vital living traditions from which such figures draw their practices and inspiration is a rather more “common” affair. Certainly attempts are made to clearly distinguish theurgia from goetia, high magic from low, but all fail on close inspection and one can’t help but sense the presence of a political more than theological battle being waged. As Scholem has made clear, the populist bent of magic is one with its assault upon official religious authority and this authority – whether Christian, Jewish, or Pagan – is generally the tool of the political ruling class.

Hand of Glory

The Hand of Glory

mandragora

Magic and Social Justice

or

Why Marx should have been a Witch

Now, if crimes observed on a great scale thus show, in their amount and their classification, the regularity of physical phenomena… is there not a necessity for deeply reflecting upon an alteration of the system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room only for the supply of new ones?

Karl Marx January 28, 1853 Letter to the New-York Daily Tribune

As my discussion thus far should make clear, while magic certainly can and has been used for both transcendent and worldly aims, its most common use has largely been worldly and frequently materialistic. This has contributed to the poor opinion in which so called low magic has been held through history, but this dismissal of material and worldly ends is a product of privilege more than anything else. The financially secure, the politically potent, can afford to dismiss “lowly” goals for “loftier” endeavors but for those desperate to eat or pay rent the world takes on very different contours.

As late as the 19th century farmers in America were using mandrake root, which does not naturally occur in America, in farming. Mandrakes were kept in wooden boxes or silk and treasured as vital family treasures. Traditional they were taken out before or just after the first planting and carried over the full length of fields in order to secure a good crop. These were no high magicians, but rather Christian farmers desperate to maintain their livelihood who turned to magic where their priests and ministers had nothing to offer.

“…he maketh a True relation of all sorts of Theft and of Treasures hidd… he maketh men Invisible, witty, Eloquent & to live Long; he can discover Treasures and recover Things lost… he causes men to have a good Name… he maketh men to be beloved of their foes as well as they be by their friends… he can turne all mettals into Gold, he can give dignity & can confirm them to Men…”

A selection of powers of the spirits from Joseph Peterson’s edition of The Lesser Key of Solomon 

“Spell to catch a thief, To Keep Bugs out of the House, Favor and Victory Charm, For Coughs, Love Charm, Spell against every Wild Animal, Victory Charm for the Races, Spell for Dog Bite, Charm to Open a Door, Amulet for Headache”
A selection of text titles from The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Hans Dieter Betz

One cannot help but be overwhelmed in the midst of ancient magical papyri, modern grimoires, traditional witch and cunning craft practices, or the shelves of a contemporary botanica by the plethora of magical keys for finding hidden treasure, increased income and social influence, protection from theft, and cures for everyday diseases. Then there are other powers of a less savory sort intended for the practice of theft, the manipulation and control of a would-be lover, or to torture and kill. Despite intriguing connections between both invisibility and treasure hunting with shamanic trips to the Underworld, in an everyday context it is clear what uses invisibility and a “Charm to Open a Door” would have. We find magic conjoined with the art of the thief and, even more frequently, the gambler. In contemporary Afro-Caribbean contexts we find numerous spells and charms for dealing with judges and lawsuits, but these were just as common in the ancient world. These are not the attempts of the evil or greedy to usurp the power of the gods for personal gain, rather they are the tricks of the downtrodden, desperate, and exploited to take into their own hands what fire and force they can in order to fight against the injustice of their station. If magic essentially has an antiauthoritarian tendency it has just as much had an economic concern that makes it the class-warfare wing of the occult sciences whether used to game the legal world or facilitate redistribution of wealth.

Perhaps the most famous example of magic for theft shows up in stories of the Hand of Glory. This was made through the preservation of the hand of a criminal who has been hanged. Once dried the hand is turned into a candle which, when lit, supposedly placed an entire household into a magical sleep from which they would not awake until the hand had been put out or removed. Stories of the Hand of Glory almost inevitably involve thieves using it to rob houses. It also suggests a level of solidarity amidst criminals across the line of life and death since the hand of the executed is used to protect those who would avoid similar execution. Just as strikingly we have the example of Baron Kriminel in Haitian Vodou. This is a spirit sometimes identified as the first person to kill another who is used both as a patron of the violent and criminal as well as of those who have suffered from violence and are seeking retribution. In either role we find here a spirit offering power beyond, and in conflict with, the role of the police likely in a world in which the police can not be trusted to serve the interests of the desperate individual.

Now, there is no question that the use to which any number of these magical practices and potencies can be put is ethically suspect but it should be just as clear that it represents a revolutionary force consistently present throughout history and particularly cherished amongst the oppressed and disadvantaged. Religion is the opiate of the masses in many ways, and some of these apply to magic as well, but it is perhaps most anesthetizing and insidious when it turns the eyes of the abused away from injustice towards some promised beyond. Whether in the guise of Hinduism’s and Buddhism’s sometime support of an unjust caste system or Christian encouragement that the poor look to heaven rather than the banks and mansions of their oppressors, religion is most effective for the ruling classes when it encourages people to await their reward later while others enjoy it today. In this magic has almost never been complicit and has, instead, encouraged rather the reverse perspective.

Magic has done more than just counsel the disadvantaged both that they need not bow and that their lot can be improved, it has frequently also harbored within its own being a basic social solidarity. We see this, I suggest, in the famous dictum that one purchase occult supplies without bargaining. This rule is very common and has given rise to numerous interpretations to which I would like to add another. Far from a comfortable shop-keeper, the common occult goods found in many grimoires and traditions are most likely to be purchased from other members of the lower-classes and often enough other practitioners of the occult arts. I would like to suggest that this is not an outlawing of thrift as much as an encouragement to enrich others facing similar struggles as you in turn seek to enrich yourself.

Hekate by William Blake 1795

Hekate by William Blake 1795

Paganism and Magic

I began this investigation with a concern about the role of authoritarian and monarchical power within pagan mythology. I suggested that magic, more than pagan religion, might represent a vital revolutionary force. However, this suggestion is not divorced from my own deep commitment to pagan practices, theology, and metaphysics. All religions have had magical elements, but paganism more than most has made the practice of magic central to its being even when these magical practices are or were tightly limited by an official orthodoxy. Amongst the religions of the world, pagan religions have by and large been distinctly this-worldly and committed to the use of religious practice to change and improve the present reality i.e. magic. This is the paganism committed to the earth and to a collective solidarity aimed at beauty and justice, this is pagan magic as the healing art needed for a diseased world. If the specter of revolution is to once more haunt the leaders of the world it must be summoned from its afterlife by the necromancers and witches of today.

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .

8 Comments »

    • Yes, it is a rather tricky issue. Of course I don’t deny the terrible using some magic can be put to, but understanding the context in which this often occurs seems rather important. And misuse doesn’t necessarily disprove the more redemptive potentialities. Thanks for reading!

      Like

  1. This is a fantastic, incredible piece of writing. The spirits of revolution are palatable here, pressed against every word and sentence. Love then mention of the Loa and ATR’s!!!

    Like

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