Raising the Power of the People: Protest as Magickal Ritual
“When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Standing in a circle, we start to chant. Full-throated, rhythmic, and loud, we invoke the honored dead and name our intent. As our bodies move, I feel the energy rise and flow. Hundreds of people are here, focusing all our wills on a single point, sensing the nature of the physical space change around us and hearing an egregore form itself out of us. We process through downtown and find the laws of the ordinary world negated, transcended, pushed aside by our raised fists and the beat of our legs as we shout, “Whose Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter!” Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the hundreds of other Black women and men and nonbinary people that the police have murdered this year – we know the dead are with us, demanding justice. We know that white supremacy will fall because it will be made to fall; we will see this working through.
Mass protest is magick. That’s literal. It’s not just the accouterments of ritual – although, of course, chanting and processing and invoking the dead often feature prominently. When hundreds or thousands of people gather and focus their collective intent to effect a change in the world, that’s magick. And, indeed, anyone who’s been to a truly powerful demonstration can testify that energy gets raised there, and it’s strong. The surrounding space becomes something different. It’s no longer a shopping mall or an intersection, any more than a consecrated altar is just a few knickknacks on a coffee table. It’s where the protest egregore – “The People,” let’s call it – redefines the marketplace or the thoroughfare as the agora or the Nordic Thing, the self-aware Commons, where the powerful become weak and everything becomes possible.
And, indeed, the ordinary rules do collapse. The People can occupy busy intersections, shut down the infrastructure of commerce and government, and block interstate highways. Under normal circumstances, no one could do anything like that, and very few would want to try. We have to raise the egregore and sanctify the urban space first. Protests happen between the worlds as surely as any devotional ritual or coven working.
“My initiations and elevations changed my perception of reality, and they eventually brought me closer to the things that matter.”
If an initiation’s done right, you come away transformed. The world doesn’t look the same afterwards, and eventually, you start forgetting how you ever could’ve seen things like you used to. Once you receive the Mysteries, you don’t simply lose them again; once you realize how racist-patriarchal-imperial capitalism dictates the social world, you no longer can’t notice it all around you. Sure, that awareness can come through study or conversation or – rarely – individual perception sharp enough to push past the hegemony of the ruling class. In real life, that’s rarely enough. It usually takes initiatory ritual to break through a lifetime of ideological conditioning. Most of us get there through the direct, firsthand experience of the power of the People. March in protests and participate in that egregore, and you won’t be the same. It’s no coincidence that both ritual theory and Marxist philosophy use the language of inducing a shift in consciousness. Once you’ve encountered the Mystery, your old worldview is no longer sufficient. There’s a change in you, and you find the world changed in turn.
Sometimes, Pagans bemoan our relative lack of developed theology. Our self-definitions are less likely to dwell on systematized belief than on experiences 0f ecstasy. By and large, “Paganism” is a heterogeneous mix of initiatory esoteric currents and orthopraxic public polytheisms. What links us is partly just a shared subculture, but also a broadly held sense that religion needs to be rooted in relationship and practice, rather than textual authority or assent to particular articles of faith. Pagan theology certainly exists (and, considering how young our traditions are, it’s probably better developed than the odds would have suggested). However, it mainly tends to explicate ritual practice and ecstatic subjectivity. Our exegesis isn’t of holy books or infallible prophets’ words; rather, we create theory to account for what we do.
Of course, revolutionary political theory does the same thing with regard to the practice of participatory social change. This website, in large part, involves individuals who find themselves in both streams, identifying and expanding the points of resonance between them. Most of us here have gone through the initiation of protest. We’ve helped raise the egregore of the People, and that necessarily informs our worldviews. We can (and do) theorize at great length about those experiences – but, at the same time, reading isn’t enough. No one should confuse a Book of Shadows with a practical tool like an athame; no one should confuse political theory with practical tools like the People’s Mic, the banner, and the megaphone.
You can encounter it yourself. Don’t take this on faith. Confirm it. Go protest. Raise power. Evoke the People. Shift your consciousness. Transform the world.
Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.