The Gods of Beauty, A Poetic Cycle

I would like to offer something a little different from my usual fare. Here are five poems selected from an ongoing cycle I have been writing. I hope you enjoy them.

GeologicalExfoliationOfGraniteRock

Untimely

The gods returned too late.
When the last body lay
In crumpled invocation,
Forgotten and charred,
They returned and looked
Upon a shattered world
With birds wheeling
Amidst bent timber
And rusty girders beseeching the skies.

The gods of beauty returned too late.
After the final death struggle
The shudder and shrug
The groan.
Born from the last nuclear boom
As from some trumpet’s call
With the cymbal crash
Of the last building’s fall.
They returned too late.

As tears from a blinded iris,
The light of the last fusion blast,
They rose in the glory
Of triumphant return
And found no one waiting.
The last monk died clutching his book
The last mystic burned in trance
The hopeful stared at hopeless horizons
The faithful fainted away in fear
The old gods forgotten
The new gods cursed –
The gods of beauty returned too late.

Prairie grass.JPG

Wandering

They wandered then over desolate ground
Where for millennia man had stood
Where for millennia more no man would stand.

Marveling in wonder at the hurricane-tossed sands
And the fresh cracked earth
Where ice caps had gleamed.

They ran with the fox over shattered concrete
And flew with the sparrow through gaping windows
Like thieves surprised to find a house deserted.

Songs echoed in burgeoning branches
And wolves hunted beside once tame brethren.
A new peace and savagery reigned.

The sun still rose, more glaring
In the steaming skies where wild heats
Vied with sudden storms.

Awful, immense, but not quite empty
The earth yawned about their feet.
Those feet strode roads swift going to prairie.

But still the rolling streams
Displaced from long worn paths
Echoed the songs of children who were.

Still in hidden corners tattered pages spoke poems
Destined to rot and never be read.
Still the world spoke of those who were.

But time was resilient and would forget
And all to soil man’s mighty monuments turn.
And the gods of beauty wandered the earth.

Opel engine X14NZ-rusty block near the water pump

The Things She Kept

One was Mnemnosyne
Goddess of memory
For none remained but she
To value the price of memory.

All else was growth and decay
All across the globe.
Fervent breedings and blossomings
And the crashing of human follies.

But she had returned
And walked the rounded orb
Touching, tucking, and cherishing
What would not come again.

A plastic label from a dish soap bottle
Bright green “ultra concentrated”
And bold letters “anti-bacterial”
Tucked beneath a flat stone

On the edges of the desert.
Dry and buried it would remain there,
A memory of man’s flight from mortality
And fear of the smallest attack.

Not nearly as fragile, this bit of plastic,
As the cars which already crumbled in rust.
Soon each skeletal frame would be forgotten
But not the tiny ceramic spark plugs.

Those sculptures would live out the ages
And return shining in the sun
Following some mad earthquake
A thousand thousand years after our death.

The migrations of birds
Returning to city parks
Where no one remains
To feed them.

Like swallows returning to the Sahara
In memory of when it was a sea.
The world itself remembers us
In ways.

How the cats that haunt our empty streets
Will remember for generations
The mysterious desperate hunger for cream
In fine white bowls.

Our fingers touched it all,
The trash belt circling the planet
A necklace of high-tech waste
Now meaningless left-behinds.

And our voices still travel through space,
Cast out from our radios and screens
Never aware as they cross the infinite gulf
That their origin species is long since extinct.

Credit cards remain as well
Long after our money has rotted away
Desperately repeating our names
And the numbers by which we were bought and sold.

Chronos,sleeping on Wolff grave-ME fec

Chronos

One did not arrive too late.
For him no arrival or departure beckoned.
Un-coming or –going,
Father of our whiling.

The dawn’s midnight setting
Shivers in each rainbow glance
And the blushing putrification of spring buds
Labor beneath winter snows.

His tread, all treaded, yet treaded
Haunted our minor paths
Where already sheen was rust
And seashores sank beneath the ice.

The crack, of the child’s bat
And arthritic fragile hip,
The lover’s sigh and newborn gasp
And death groan overlaying the purchase of a car.

All flesh was oil and coal
Rustled with summer leaves
Where mice hid before the moon
Was molten born from earth’s crust.

Our morning yawn an echo
Of our final parting,
With all fields plowed to fallow
And nothing leading or to follow.

Kapok tree Honolulu.jpg
“Kapok tree Honolulu”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Stretch

-but something is free now.
The garden shrub gone wild.
The cicadas finally call their secret
Too terrible for human ears.
The awkward guest has left
And conversation resumes
Where freely the weed blooms
And deer widely wander the highways.

Where man had measured
Observed and predicted
All returns to the original unexpected.
Undetected and unbridled
By human estimation
The ancient unprecedented stirs.
Once more there is no before,
Again there is no after,
New anew each thing stretches
As the birds burst forth in laughter.

Flying Crow

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 .

The True Western Occult Tradition? A Review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s “Encyclopedia Goetica”

Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica is a monumental achievement, but more than that it is of vital importance for practicing occultists, pagans, and all those who fall into both categories. A work spanning three official volumes stretched across five actual books, it is an invaluable addition to occult history, theory, and practice. I intend to offer, in this review, an extensive and careful consideration of the full sweep of the project but if you are waiting for the bottom line allow me to say at the beginning that anyone interested in western occultism and paganism must read these books. They are probably the most impressive occult works to be written in my lifetime.

Covers of the “Geosophia” from Scarlet Imprint

The Grimoire Revival and Bibliotheque Rouge

First allow me to provide you with some context. One cannot fully appreciate the Encyclopedia without first understanding its place in the grimoire revival and one can’t consider this revival without considering the vital role played by the publishing company Scarlet Imprint and its subdivision Bibliotheque Rouge.

The grimoire revival is a movement made up of numerous practical occultists and occult scholars who are offering a renewed interest and investigation into the grimoire tradition in Europe and the Afro-Caribbean context. The revival is a diverse business but at its heart is the attempt to take seriously the full scope of mainly Renaissance and later popular occult works commonly referred to as grimoires and frequently claiming medieval or ancient origins. When discussing grimoire magic amidst most practicing occultists the immediate references are likely to be three well known texts: The Greater Key of Solomon, The Lesser Key of Solomon (frequently called The Goetia), and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The grimoire revival, on the other hand, seeks to expand its view to take seriously texts frequently underutilized or dismissed by the British and French members of the late 19th and early 20th century Occult Revival (for example Eliphas Levi, the members of the Golden Dawn such as Macgregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley). These texts include the incredibly important Arabic Picatrix, the Sworn Book of Honorius, the Black Pullet, the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, the Eighth Book of Moses, the Grand Grimoire, and the works which are Stratton-Kent’s focus: the True Grimoire or Griumoirium Verum, the Great Book of Saint Cyprian, the Heptameron or Magical Elements and the Testament of Solomon.

The basic argument of the grimoire revival is two-fold. First that the popularity of the three most well known grimoires has obscured some of their inadequacies and thus offered an incomplete understanding of the practices the grimoires are trying to teach and, second, that the neglect of other grimoires has kept us from actually understanding the historical importance and nature of the grimoires themselves. Stratton-Kent’s work, as in my opinion the central edifice thus far of the revival, offers a corrected historical understanding of the nature and role of the magic contained in the grimoires, a far more complete picture of the practical methods to be employed, and frequent corrections to the names and symbols of the spirits employed. It also offers an edition of its own of The True Grimoire (completed through integration with the Grand Grimoire), Great Book of Saint Cyprian, The Confession of Saint Cyprian and the Testament of Solomon as well as numerous selections from the Heptameron or Magical Elements, the Picatrix and The Greek Magical Papyri amongst other texts.

The grimoire tradition, as pointed out by Stratton-Kent, primarily shows up in print in two main forms. These are aristocratic texts of primarily angelic magic of Qabalistic/Christian occult theory and the popularly printed texts of the Bibliotheque Bleue genre that were cheap publications for the general public from early modern France (between 1600 and the mid-1800s) with similar types of texts found in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Bibliotheque Bleue and similar publishing businesses offered for the first time texts affordable for, and aimed at, the general public amongst which were many of the “pulp” or “low” grimoires seemingly dealing with treasure hunting, the summoning forth of demons, and the like. As an outgrowth of the printing press, the appearance of these mass-produced texts was a highly important historical event with which the publishing company Scarlet Imprint has aligned itself with its Bibliotheque Rouge. While Scarlet Imprint prints high-quality (and expensive) occult works as beautiful as they are important Bibliotheque Rouge offers affordable copies of the same texts for the general use of the public much as Bibliotheque Bleue did. If Bibliotheque Blue gave rise to the grimoire tradition in modern Europe as we know it, Bibliotheque Rouge seeks to give rise to its rebirth. The occult world is greatly indebted to Alkistis Dimech and Peter Grey, the founders of Scarlet Imprint and Bibliotheque Rouge.

Circle

The General Argument

Stratton-Kent’s general argument is the following: The grimoires represent a survival of primarily ancient pagan occult and religious practices over which a thin veneer of Qabalah and Christianity has been added. This veneer, including its talk of demons and angels, can be stripped away to uncover the true pagan occult tradition beneath the surface of the texts. This reveals that the grimoire revival, at least as far as it appears in Stratton-Kent, is at the same time a great pagan revival which recognizes pagan religious practices at the very heart of all of Europe’s occult tradition and history. Magic, to put it too simply and bluntly while perhaps overstating the point, is really pagan and was dressed up in monotheist clothing for many reasons including practical political concerns such as avoiding the stake.

The full scope of this argument will involve tracing the grimoires back to The Greek Magical Papyri, restoring the central role of necromantic dealings with spirits of the dead to occult practice, and exploring the promising connection between the use the grimoires have been put to in an Afro-Caribbean context preserving the native paganism of the Americas and Africa beneath a Christian cover and the actual origins of the grimoires themselves in a similar process. Ultimately we find the grimoire practices to consist of a surviving ancient shamanism like that practiced by ancient goetes (a Greek term from which goetia derives, frequently applied to non-aristocratic wandering magicians practicing a pre-classical form of ancient paganism).

The books of the Encyclopedia Goetica

Outline of the Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia Goetica consists of three volumes: The True Grimoire; Geosophia: The Argo of Magic, From the Greeks to the Grimoires; and The Testament of Cyprian the Mage. The first consists of one book and the second two volumes consist of two books a piece. The first and last volume (The True Grimoire and The Testament of Cyprian the Mage) are the most practically minded and focus primarily on exploring actual grimoires and their underlying meaning. Ultimately The True Grimoire is the text most easily applied to occult practice and I have used aspects of it over the last few months with rather striking results. The Geosophia, on the other hand, is the most theoretical and historical of the volumes and lays out in excellent and careful detail the nature of the ancient shamanic tradition of the Goetes that Stratton-Kent is uncovering in the grimoires. The True Grimoire and Testament will teach you how to do things while the Geosophia teaches what exactly you are historically doing and why.

TrueGrimoireThe True Grimoire

Stratton-Kent starts his Encyclopedia with an investigation of the The True Grimoire for several reasons. First, as he convincingly argues, it is the most complete version of the original lost text or collection of sources/traditions on which The Lesser Key of Solomon, a.k.a. the Goetia, and the Grand Grimoire are both based. In fact, The Lesser Key is likely derived from The True Grimoire. (It is worth noting, however, that Stratton-Kent rejects the ultimate claim that there is one originating text that is the true Key of Solomon which has been lost, instead he presents the idea that the title Key of Solomon marks more of a genre with interconnecting sources.) By combining The True Grimoire and the Grand Grimoire Stratton-Kent is able to complete the full spiritual hierarchy of the original manuscript with a total of 79 spirits and the full meaning of their differences in rank and relationships of authority, ruler to subordinate. This clearly deflates the common attempts (in which I have participated myself) to correlate the 72 spirits of The Lesser Key of Solomon with the 72 angels and names of God derived from the Qabalistic Shemhamphorasch. This, similarly, removes one common piece of support for a monotheistic understanding of the grimoire tradition while deflating the focus on The Lesser Key of Solomon.

Second, The True Grimoire includes practical methodological details lacking in the other versions of the text. The two key aspects here are the presence of an intermediary spirit used to get in touch with all the other spirits of the text and the use of the “Armadel” method about which I will say more in a moment. The intermediary spirit is known as Scirlin who acts as the door-keeper and messenger of the other spirits. Stratton-Kent is quick to point out the overlap here of the intermediary role played by figures such as Legba and Exu in Afro-Caribbean traditions; Janus, Hecate and Anubis in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions; and, of course, the Holy Guardian Angel in The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. There is also an overlap with the role played by Uriel in another part of The True Grimoire entitled “Divination by the Word of Uriel” in which the angel is used to contact any spirit (though likely primarily the spirits of the dead, considering Uriel’s frequent role as Angel of Death) the magician wishes. This use of an intermediary is, Stratton-Kent argues, an ancient pagan methodology whose neglect both obscures the ancient pagan pedigree of the grimoires and impoverishes the coherence of the ritual procedures of texts lacking it.

The Armadel method is largely what we have come to understand as skrying: the use of a bowl of water, ink, crystal or mirror for the attainment of visions. In The True Grimoire this method is used by calling spirits into the skrying surface, a practice which plays such a large role for example in the Enochian work of John Dee and Edward Kelley. This presence of skrying in The True Grimoire is important for several reasons. First, it allows the text to offer two methods for contacting spirits: the standard evocation using a traditional circle etc. and the use of skrying. Second, it shows up in The True Grimoire as one of the first and oldest presentations extant of the method in the grimoires thus stressing the important of this particular grimoire for occult history in general. Third, and finally, it offers yet another tie to the ancient pagan world.

The discussion of skrying brings us to one of the central pieces of Stratton-Kent’s overall argument, namely that the grimoires represent the survival of occult methods found in the ancient Greek Magical Papyri that themselves, Stratton-Kent later argues, represent preservations of even older pagan religious practices. I will say more about this second part of the argument in my discussion of the Geosophia but, for now, let me discuss The Greek Magical Papyri and the presence of skrying within it along with Stratton-Kent’s fascinating speculation as to the intermediary role skrying plays within the history of the development (or decline) of pagan religion.

The so-called Greek Magical Papyri are a collection of magical texts dating approximately from the seven hundred year time period stretching between the second century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E. The papyri are the product of several different periods of cosmopolitan cultural interaction and blending throughout the Mediterranean region deriving largely from the cultural unification provided by the conquests of Alexander the Great which lead to the exceptionally culturally diverse Hellenistic period of Ancient history and, of course, the complex cultural mixing of the Roman Empire. As the product of these cosmopolitan eras the papyri are not exclusively, or even individually, Greek despite their common name. They are written primarily in the Greek, Demotic and Coptic languages making them just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones and there are signs of both translation from Egyptian languages into the Greek and from Greek into Egyptian languages. But even this dualism is inaccurate as the texts are almost entirely syncretic, i.e. they openly contain and unify elements of almost every culture and religion involved in the cosmopolitan eras from the obvious Greek and Egyptian to Hebrew, Christian, Roman, Zoroastrian and many other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures besides. It is not at all unusual to find in them, in fact it is rather the standard procedure, Hebrew and Christian names of God and angels blended with invocations of Apollo and Horus.

It is Stratton-Kent’s argument, and a pretty conclusive one at that, that the Grimoire Tradition is a survival and development of the eclectic blending of traditions represented in The Greek Magical Papyri. In the Geosophia he will go further back in history to investigate the nature and origin of the Papyri practices themselves, but for now this should be a sufficient discussion of the subject. To establish the link between the early modern grimoires, especially The True Grimoire, and the Magicial Papyri Stratton-Kent focuses on the topic of skrying, i.e. the Armadel method. This method shows up extensively within the Magical Papyri and in a form closely resembling that of The True Grimoire. Most simply the method is as follows: the magician or the magician and a seer that has been selected for the job sit with a skrying surface (water, ink, mirror, crystal, etc.) and an intermediary spirit is called into the surface (Scirlin, Uriel, Anubis, etc.). This intermediary then brings forth at the magicians request the other spirits whose presence is desired. The unification of the intermediary spirit and the Armadel method are, as Stratton-Kent explains, a central structure of The True Grimoire and likely also a missing or unstated key aspect of many of the other grimoires. In the Magical Papyri there is usually a bit more involved in this ritual. The intermediary spirit, once it appears, is first asked to set up a ritual scene. Often the request is for the spirit to set up a banquet with a set amount of chairs and so on. Then the spirit invites in a company of the gods, or spirits, to feast and celebrate after which the desired spirit can be spoken to for whatever purposes the magician has in mind. This method can similar be applied to the spirits of the dead as well. What makes this aspect so fascinating is, as Stratton-Kent points out, the extent to which it provides the performance of a full sacrifice and pagan ritual without the use of an actual temple, offering and so on. In other words, it places the role of pagan priest into the hands of the magician and allows a full large-scale religious ceremony to be performed in one’s own study. One can see the value of this, for example, for pagans living far from city centers with their own temple precincts and staff of priests or for those living in a context (political and social) which no longer facilitates or allows for the full practice of old collective pagan ceremonies. The common occult method of skrying, then, arises from a development, or decline, of standard pagan ceremony once the open practice of the various cults of the gods became for many reasons no longer as accessible.

These elements of The True Grimoire allow Stratton-Kent both to make a powerful argument that the entire grimoire tradition must be understand from the foundation of the Magical Papyri and that the practices from those Papyri are necessary to complete the missing elements of the grimoires. It also makes clear the pagan, or at least wildly syncretic, nature of the grimoire tradition though the argument will push beyond this in the Geosophia.

On top of this complex and powerful argument, Stratton-Kent’s The True Grimoire is useful because it provides us with a completed version of the text and system along with extensive discussions of the origin of various important spirits. This unpacking of the origin and nature of the grimoire spirits continues throughout the Encyclopedia Goetica with, for example, an extensive investigation of the spirit Astaroth and her (yes, her) derivation from the Semetic goddess Astarte, her relationship to the Sumerian goddess Inanna and the Greek Hecate and Artemis, and so on while the first book of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage contains similar extensive investigations into the history, derivation and nature of spirits such as Asmodeus and Oriens.

Finally The True Grimoire concludes with a discussion of the connection between the grimoires and Afro-Caribbean traditions in the Americas including a brief presentation of the influence and overlap of spirits from the grimoire with the Exus of the Brazilian cult of Quimbanda which derived several of its symbols for the Exus from the symbols for the spirits in The True Grimoire.

Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keeps the Golden Fleece. Red-figured cup by Douris, c. 480-470 BC. From Cerveteri (Etruria)

Geosophia

The two volumes of the Geosophia are exceptionally rich. In fact, I can’t help but understate the impressive achievement these books represent. Were the rest of the Encylcopedia nonexistent the Geosophia would stand as an invaluable work on pagan and occult history in its own right. I have studied ancient culture and philosophy extensively at both the college and graduate levels, I have presented and published on ancient philosophy in an academic context, and still there was much in the Geosophia that was surprising, innovative and exciting. If I were to criticize the work it could only be for containing too much – it is a work that requires repeated and careful study – and so I cannot hope to offer anything near a complete presentation of its content. It will have to suffice to present those key aspects I found most interesting and valuable while presenting those necessary elements for carrying Stratton-Kent’s argument forward. Before I do so, however, let me point out that those of my readers who are most interested in pagan religion, practices and history rather than the contemporary use of grimoires will be best served by the Geosophia rather than the other works. You are bound to find some rather striking insights about the history and nature of Ancient Mediterranean paganism.

The overall purpose of the Geosophia is to offer in investigation into the history of goetia and its origins understood as a distinct occult and religious tradition. The books themselves are organized via an investigation of the journey taken by Jason and the Argonauts as presented in the Hellenistic epic the Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes who was a librarian at the great library of Alexandria. The mythic journey of the Argonauts provides a basic structure to the book as it provides a narrative line allowing Stratton-Kent to investigate the history and traditions related to the various heroes involved, locations visited and events undergone in the text.

The broad strokes of Stratton-Kent’s investigation is the uncovering of the nature of the goetes, or ancient shamanic magicians from which the term Goetia derives, through the presentation of an extensive conflict in the ancient world between Chthonic and Olympian religion. The main argument is that the older religion, from which much of the mystery cults derive as well, was primarily focused on the earth, underworld and spirits of the dead. It was also largely a localized religion with distinct variations based upon the history, heroes and gods of given populations. These ancient chthonic religious variations were also, if I might say so, largely the religion “of the people”. With the rise of the city-state, however, new political forces attempted to achieve cultural unity and power via a transformation of the more diffuse local cults into the official Olympian city centered religion of the Classical era.

The move from Chthonic to Olympian religion transformed the character and meaning of many gods, and some of the most important older gods were also derided and given lower rank in the new pantheons. I’ll offer two of Stratton-Kent’s main examples though he offers numerous careful and important aspects of this process. Apollo, now known as a sun god of the Olympian pantheon, doesn’t really seem to fit this role. Stratton-Kent points out, for example, that Apollo is primarily depicted with a silver bow that is a rather odd accouterment for a sun god. It seems to more easily fit a chthonic or lunar correspondence. Furthermore, within the oldest depictions of Apollo, for example that of Homer, no mention is made of Apollo’s solar nature but instead he seems to be depicted primarily as a warrior god of disease. In Homer the only sun god discussed is Helios, which of course provokes the question why another sun god is necessary. As a darker more Chthonic warrior god of disease we see Apollo’s older meaning before it was transformed into that of a solar god.

The god Hephaestus undergoes transformation as well, and this transformation is central to Stratton-Kent’s argument. Hephaestus is a rather laughable character in the Olympian pantheon. He is crippled, the gods are often literally depicted laughing at him, his wife cheats on him with other gods, and so on. This official role, however, belies his massive importance and widespread popularity as a very important god in local cults. In fact Stratton-Kent argues that Hephaestus is one of the most important gods of the older Chthonic religion and ties this into an argument that the older religion and its wandering goetes practitioners derive from the religio-magical cults of metal working tribes throughout the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern world. This is, similarly, the origin of the classes of prophetic and metal working heroes-become-gods known as the Dactyls which feature prominently in Stratton-Kent’s argument. Phrygia plays a central role in this regard.

As Stratton-Kent presents it, the practice of the goetes predates and extends well beyond Greece and Rome while, nonetheless, providing the basis of both civilizations’ original religion. It is for this reason that I keep using awkward phrases like “Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern religion” rather than talking about, for example, Ancient Greece exclusively. Stratton-Kent’s history and vision refreshingly extends well beyond these stifling and artificial boundaries. We see this, for example, in his connecting the origin of Apollo to the same origin of the angel Michael, namely the Canaanite warrior and plague deity Reshef.

Stratton-Kent’s argument expands beyond gender boundaries as well as regional ones. He focuses extensively on a discussion of each of the numerous female prophet-sorceresses known as the Sibyls. Here we see the goetes as female and male regional and traveling shamans.

In his Introduction to The Greek Magical Papyri Hans Dieter Betz describes the content of the Hellenic and Roman period papyri in the following manner:

“In effect, it is a new religion altogether, displaying unified religious attitudes and beliefs. As an example, one may mention the enormously important role of the gods and goddesses of the underworld… it is characteristic of the Hellenistic syncretism of the Greek magical papyri that the netherworld and its deities had become one of its most important concerns. The goddess Hekate, identical with Persephone, Selene, Artemis, and the old Babylonian goddess Ereschigal, is one of the deities most often invoked in the papyri… Hermes, Aphrodite, and even the Jewish god Iao, have in many respects become underworld deities. In fact, human life seems to consist of nothing but negotiations in the antechamber of death and the world of the dead. The underworld deities, the demons and the spirits of the dead, are constantly and unscrupulously invoked and exploited as the most important means of achieving the goals of human life on earth…” (The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation p. xlvi)

One way to understand Stratton-Kent’s argument is to see that while Betz’s description of the character of the culture of the papyri is correct he is incorrect in the suggestion that this represents a new religion. Instead, Stratton-Kent demonstrates, the papyri represent something of a survival and renewal of the old Chthonic religion which predates the official religions of the various cities and nations of the Classical era. Of course the syncretism of Hellenism and Rome add new names and dimensions to the practices, but it is important to recognize the extensive syncretic nature of the earliest aspects of the old Chthonic religion as well.

To return to the grimoire tradition, then, we can say that if the grimoires represent a survival of the tradition of the Magical Papyri and these papyri similarly represent a survival of the pre-Classical religions then the grimoire tradition of goetia is the continuation of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern’s oldest, even, primordial religious practices. The oldest religion, then, is goetic magic and it is deeply necromantic, focusing extensively on dealing with the dead. In this regard we can state that the spirits of the early modern grimoires such as The True Grimoire are each one of three things. They are elementals, spirits of the dead especially past heroes, and pagan gods and goddesses, keeping in mind of course that frequently these categories overlap with gods having elemental aspects or being derived from the deified dead.

Amidst the process of presenting this larger historical narrative Stratton-Kent offers us innumerable valuable insights and details about magical and pagan traditions and practices. Amongst these are, for example, the argument that the role played by two recurrent types of magical operations in the grimoires are not at all what they might seem. The grimoires frequently include types of magic to find buried treasure and achieve invisibility. Stratton-Kent presents the interpretation that these are, in fact, the remains of old rituals of shamanic import designed to achieve access to the underworld. The underworld, traditionally populated with various guardians and dangers, could be accessed through spells to find “buried” (i.e. underworld) treasures and the protective role of invisibility which would allow one to sneak past, as it were, the underworld guardians. A similar fascinating discussion revolves around the history and role of volcanoes as doorways to the underworld and the unique genre of volcano magic that shows up in the grimoire tradition. Stratton-Kent provides interesting examples of this volcano magic.

Finally, as an additional step in the movement from the magical papyri to the early modern grimoires Stratton-Kent discusses the role of the 10th or 11th Century Arabic grimoire the Picatrix and its presentation of astrological occult lore including, for example, the lunar mansions and planetary hours of the day and night. Towards this end Stratton-Kent inserts into his text useful selections from the Picatrix itself.

Saint Cyprian engaged in exorcism.

The Testament of Cyprian the Mage

Where The True Grimoire represents the French and Italian segments of the grimoire tradition the move to a discussion of the several grimoires related to Saint Cyprian serve the role of shifting to the Spanish and Portuguese aspects of the tradition that have played a massive role in influencing the occult traditions of the Afro-Caribbean and South America. Stratton-Kent’s investigation of the history of Saint Cyprian, the several grimoires connected with his name, and the question of what would have influenced the thought of and populated the book shelves of the mythical Saint Cyprian and the compilers of his history provides Stratton-Kent with the opportunity to discuss the history stretching from the writing of the Magical Papyri to the Renaissance beginnings of the grimoire tradition proper.

The goetic tradition derives its negative connotation from an extensive history of rather literal demonization. The spirits and gods are turned into demons and the practice itself is set off from “respectable” occult practices. The start of this division is the war between the Chthonic and Olympian religions in the ancient world but its Hellenized and early Christian version arises in the conflict between goetia and its generally neoplatonic opposite, theurgy. Theurgy is generally understood to be the art of uniting with gods or God, climbing as it were the ladder to the heavens, while goetia is commonly understood as the art of working with demons and is grouped along with necromancy, or working with the dead. We get here a clear contrast between the higher and lower, the divine and demonic.

The contrast between theurgy and goetia is, however, the history of a deception as Stratton-Kent’s work in Geosophia has well prepared us to see. If the origin of the “demons” of goetia is gods and the deified dead then goetia is frequently about contact and/or union with the divine. Another distinction between theurgy and goetia is based on the “lowly” or worldly nature of goetic goals. But, as Stratton-Kent demonstrates, theurgy often enough aimed at various worldly goals as well while, on the other hand, goetia can be understood to itself have higher religious and eschatological goals (and, of course, most of the lowly worldly goals of goetia are hardly what they seem). We can see this particularly clearly when we consider that theurgy largely develops from the mystery cults of the ancient world while these cults themselves developed from the earlier practices of the goetes.

Allow me to offer an illustration of some of the eschatological/religious goals of goetia that have to do with the nature of the dead and the underworld. In Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld we get to see the fate of most of the spirits of the dead. In general the dead find themselves in a rather sad state, they become speechless and personality-less shades. But this is not the fate of all of them. The prophet Tiresias, for example, is able to maintain his wisdom and identity in Hades along with many humans who become unworld judges and other honored figures. This becomes a main goal of the ancient mystery cults and goetia, the ability to maintain one’s full existence into the afterlife. The path to this goal was often laid through a process of “dying” in life through initiation and shamanic visionary experience. When one visits Hades while alive one prepares to remain, in some sense, alive when one goes there in the afterlife. This is the sense in which not all souls are immortal but one can become immortal through proper magical training and experience. It is worth noting there is a strikingly similar argument in favor of the benefits of philosophy that Plato’s depiction of Socrates offers in dialogues such as The Republic and the Phaedo.

We see methods for achieving this after-life immortality in goetia, mystery cult and theurgy alike. In regards to this Stratton-Kent offers a rather interesting discussion of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles and his claim that his philosophy could make people immortal. Rather than responding in the common way that many philosophers do and take this as an absurd exaggeration on the part of the philosopher, Stratton-Kent takes it seriously as addressing the otherworldly immortality that goetic practice can provide.

The other aspect of this goetic necromantic working with the dead involves the “higher calling” of helping those who have died without the benefit of proper preparation. In other words, one of the key works of the goetes is the “laying of ghosts”, i.e. bringing about the “salvation” of the unhappy, violent or listless dead – these most often include those who have died from violence, without appropriate burial rites, or prematurely before their roles in life had been fulfilled. As the goes can prepare the way for herself and others in finding advancement in death, so too can the goes do this work for those who are already dead although the process is likely much more difficult. This provides goetia with a truly noble role in the negotiation of the relationship between living and dead.

The connection between goetia and the salvation of the soul can be uncovered as underlying the most demonized of all if its aspects in the Christian context, the role of the infamous “pact with demons”. Stratton-Kent makes clear that this pact in the grimoires is best understood along the lines of the concept of “conjunction” with divinity. This can be considered from several angles. First, magic throughout its history from the ancient world through to the 19th and 20th century occult revival has always been understood to involve the identification with gods and heroes. We become one with the gods through their invocation, literally by “calling them in” to us, and magic is largely achieved through the power that union with the gods and spirits brings about. This goes hand in hand, of course, with our own spiritual improvement as well. When we form a pact with a spirit we join with it and are improved through this conjunction. Far from the dark contract through which one sells one’s soul to achieve worldly benefit, the pact involves a loving joining with a frequently more advanced spiritual entity. We see this process perhaps most clearly in the Afro-Caribbean traditions in which rather striking unity with gods and spirits is the fundamental aspect of the tradition’s methodology.

The discussion of the grimoires and texts associated with Saint Cyprian locates itself soundly within the war between Christianity, Theurgy and Goetia because several of these texts are written with the goal of rejecting and demonizing Goetia. Despite this, Stratton-Kent is able to draw extensive insights into the practice of goetia from these texts.

There are a few other practical aspects to the content of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage that I would like to mention. First let me mention one that I found particularly provocative, namely the inclusion of a discussion of twenty-fours fairies, their characteristics, and their identification with stars and constellations. I found this to be an exciting and unexpected bit of grimoire lore which is, at the same time, very useful. Stratton-Kent also includes an extensive discussion of the 36 astrological decans and their connection to the spirits of the grimoires. There is also a continuation of the effort to clarify and complete the understanding of the spiritual hierarchy begun in The True Grimoire through a careful analysis of the Kings or Chiefs and the almost entirely lost Queens of the grimoire tradition. This involves the rather interesting and complex problem of there seemingly being three different orders of these: a triple rulership of an alchemical or astrological nature along the lines of the alchemical sulfur, mercury, salt; and two quadruplicities overlapping with directions or elements. Finally, the second book of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage ends with the inclusion of the complete fascinating text of the The Testament of Solomon dating from sometime between the 1st and 5th Century C.E.

Solomon commanding the demons.

The Meaning and Purpose of Grimoire Hagiography

In the course of the full argument of the Encyclopedia Goetica Stratton-Kent points to an interesting and important answer to a rather basic question. There is no chance that Solomon or anyone from his supposed time period wrote the texts on which his name appears (in fact, current archeology suggests Solomon likely never existed at all) nor is it likely that St. Cyprian wrote any of the goetic texts that carry his name. Why, then, do these grimoires carry the names they do? The obvious and common answer is that connection with these names provide an air of tradition and authority to the texts. But there is a deeper answer. A key aspect of goetia as presented by Stratton-Kent is, as discussed, the conjunction with the spirits of past heroes and for a magician past heroes include especially past magicians. For the ancients this might mean identification with Tiresias or one of the Sibyls, but for the later European traditions it meant identification with the named patrons of the grimoires. The various keys of Solomon or works of Saint Cyprian or Abramelin the Mage might be less about authorship and more about the spirit through and with whom the work of the grimoire can be accomplished. Taking the next step in this, we can draw from Stratton-Kent’s books the idea that even the names Solomon and Cyprian are themselves place holders for older goetic magicians and their spiritual patronage.

Image of Astaroth from the 1818 "Dictionnaire Infernal"

Concluding Questions on the Nature of the Reality of a Spirit

I hope that I have adequately expressed my immense respect for this work and my appreciation of its exceptional importance for both practical occultism and paganism. Despite the extent of this discussion I must stress that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the rich treasures the Encyclopedia Goetica offers the reader. I would like to conclude, however, by raising a question that is equally theological and practical concerning the message and application of Stratton-Kent’s work. This is not a criticism of his work, as he hasn’t directly addressed the point I will raise, but rather seeks to take the next step in considering the import of his work.

My question is a simple one, what is the full import of Stratton-Kent’s genealogy of the various demons, spirits, and gods? This question can’t really be answered without asking the metaphysical and theological question concerning the nature of the reality of spirits and gods. If we are dealing with individual existing personalities with natures and names of their own independent of any human conception then those who have addressed Astaroth as a male demon duke in a monotheist context (as in the image above) have simply been wrong and likely have insulted the powerful entity with which they have been trying to deal. We might not get the sense that a whole lot hangs on this point, but imagine the implication of Michael and Apollo’s identification with the warrior god of plague Reshef. Have the many many people who have addressed Michael as an angel and Apollo as a sun god simply been misaddressing and/or insulting the entity Reshef? Shall we do away with Apollo and Michael both in preference for Reshef?

Those who hold to the idea that the gods and spirits are archetypes and/or mental constructs taking on independent power through the investment of the energy of the believer can address this issue easily enough. Archetypes can be understood to “nestle” and undergo evolution and transformation such that the solar Apollo and Michael, the chthonic Apollo and Michael, and Reshef can all co-exist and be worked with individually. Stratton-Kent seems much more to favor a traditional understanding of the spirits as real existing entities independent of human determination, though on this point I may indeed be wrong.

From the standpoint of the independent self-determined reality of the spirits we can offer, I feel, three main possible understandings of the message of Stratton-Kent’s work. The first I would call the reductivist response that would indeed say that when dealing with, say, the solar Apollo people have actually always been trying to deal with a chthonic god instead and that this misidentification accounts for any amount of failures on the part of the practitioners. The message, then, is that if one wants success (and, indeed, safety from insulting a powerful and dangerous entity) one had better toe the line and treat Apollo properly.

The second understanding might see the different names and natures of the spirits and gods as different roles just as I fill the role of writer, teacher, researcher, practicing magician, husband, friend and so on. In addressing Reshef, the solar Apollo, the chthonic Apollo and so on I am addressing an entity as unknowable as my own one ultimate identity (if such a thing exists) via its various names, titles, roles and so on. This solution, however, seems to cut against the grain of Stratton-Kent’s general tone that many people have gotten the nature of the spirits wrong in various ways. Of course, you could misidentify some of my roles and names but we might wonder how we could know that we had done so on the part of a spirit or god? Perhaps only through experimentation and observation of what gets results.

The third answer is, I feel, the most interesting and would be based on the suggestion that the spirits in question have themselves had a role in their own naming and conceptualization. The gods/spirits reveal themselves, and so Apollo has offered us different aspects of his own nature and perhaps even changed on his own part over time. This more seriously raises the question of whether we can be wrong about the gods, or must we take all concepts as derived from them originally? I suppose this conception still leaves open the chance of judging the concept from its practical outcome.

This question ultimately raises the issue of the relation of different approaches to the spirits to each other. In other words, how does the historian of the occult and paganism relate to the worshiper/practitioner? Say I have performed rituals to the solar Apollo and had deep and meaningful experiences of Apollo’s solar nature. How am I to take Stratton-Kent’s suggestion that Apollo was originally of a very different nature? Stratton-Kent, of course, occupies both the role of practitioner and historian but let us put that aside of the moment. How is historical knowledge to relate to spiritual revelation? This is, in fact, a conversation I had with a fellow occultist while reading the Encyclopedia Goetica and excitedly explaining Stratton-Kent’s argument about Apollo, Michael and Reshef. My friend responded, rather directly, that it just didn’t match his occult experience and, so to speak, “history be damned”. Once again, it may be that results are to be the arbiter here but they must be personal results since the reports of others are hardly going to be persuasive for me when so hard to verify independently.

Personally I will say that despite the short time I have had the Encyclopedia Goetica I have used several of its methods and suggestions with striking and impressive results and I have found the insights it provided invigorating. Practically I have absolutely no criticism. Historically, I have found the argument persuasive and am more convinced than ever that the true Western occult tradition is fundamentally a pagan one in which the grimoires play an essential part.

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 .

Nature’s Rights

“…all, and only, humans have rights.”
(Carl Cohen’s view as presented by Tom Regan, Animal Rights, Human Wrongs: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy p. 112)

“To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
(Peter Singer Practical Ethics)

“Mother Earth and all its components, including human communities, are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Law. The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth will take into account the specificities and particularities of its various components. The rights under this Act shall not limit the existence of other rights of Mother Earth.”
(Law of Mother Nature Article 5, Bolivian Law)

Animal Council, Sketch by G Rotman, 1922
Animal Council, Sketch by G Rotman, 1922

What Rights?

It may come as some surprise when I say this, but our understand of what we mean by “rights” is a mess. There are few topics as important for political discourse and, I would claim, no topic as murky and confused in our thinking. In fact, I don’t ultimately think that we have much grasp at all about what a right is or where it comes from. It is my suspicion, however, that a pagan perspective brings surprising illumination to this problem. I hope, in this discussion, to offer some suggestions of how this might be the case.

I think I can demonstrate to you the murky nature of rights talk fairly easily. Take a moment and attempt to explain to yourself directly what rights exist, where they come from, who has them and why only those (neither more nor less) exist. Or, consider for a moment the seemingly interminable arguments that immediately occur whenever the question of a right’s exist or non-existence comes up. Can you offer a clear and applicable principle that allows you to determine real from false rights?

Before I risk promoting too much confusion, allow me to limit the scope of our discussion. Rights can be divided into various categories, some easier to address than others. I will rely upon two fairly simple categories, though others can be offered and the seeming simplicity covers over some deep problems. Rights, for our purposes, can be Natural (or Universal, or Implicit, or Inalienable) or Legal. Natural rights are understood to exist in any context, free of any political framework or foundation, and are thus found everywhere despite temporal, cultural, or political differences. In turn, these natural rights are understood to legitimize political systems.

Legal rights, on the other hand, depend upon various political and legal structures for their existence. To offer a fairly simple example, life (or human life) is a fairly noncontroversial natural right while the right to trial by jury is a legal right. Trial by jury cannot exist without a functioning political framework and we could perhaps imagine other social forms to fulfill the legitimate demands of justice other than trial by jury. However, trial by jury is a social and legal framework justified by its fulfillment of the demand offered by certain natural rights (i.e. life and liberty are supposedly insured by it, and so the natural rights provide the argument for the legal rights). So, legal rights are socially and historically contingent but legitimated by natural rights which are not contingent.

You can see how this reliance of legal rights on natural rights functions by looking, for example, at key rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The ruling legalizing abortion (“Roe vs. Wade”) justifies the legal right to abortion by appeal to the “right to privacy” which, in turn, is understood as a subset of the natural right of liberty. The recent ruling legalizing marriage equality in all fifty states (“Obergefell vs. Hodges”) bases a right to marriage on various rights such as self-expression which, again, it ties back to the basic natural right of liberty.

Now, we can sometimes feel like we have a pretty good grasp on what is and is not a right because many of our legal rights are clearly delineated in political documents and processes. But this is hardly sufficient, especially since rights talk comes up most frequently when we are trying to address cases of systematic injustice in which the existing political framework, it is claimed, has failed in some way. The most powerful and important point, then, is where natural rights connect to and justify legal rights. This is also the ground most fought over. So, for example, people have argued for years following “Roe vs. Wade” that there is no right to privacy and so no right to abortion. Justice Scalia, in response to the recent marriage equality ruling, has argued that there is no right to self-expression and so no right to marriage.

Allow me to offer one further example of the contested connection between legal and natural rights. You can find arguments that there is a right to education and a right to healthcare. These rights are, in turn, vehemently rejected by others. The argument in favor of these rights relies, most often, on natural rights. The rights to life and liberty are meaningless when one is dying of a curable disease or when one lacks the necessary education to make meaningful and effective choices in one’s own life or in the political processes of one’s community.

So, of the flood of rights mentioned above (privacy, abortion, self-expression, marriage, healthcare, education) which do or do not exist and why? This is a hard enough question for legal rights or those seemingly existing between nature and the law (privacy and self-expression for example), but things get worse when we go to the heart of the issue and ask which specific natural rights exist, why, and where they come from.

Gustave Dore's
Gustave Dore’s “The Council of Rats” 1870

Whence Rights?

In light of the standard practice of justifying legal rights by means of natural ones, our real topic here will be natural rights. My ultimately question is drawn from the quotation with which I opened this discussion. I wish to ask, “Do only humans have rights?” Or, as Ecuador and Bolivia for example have enshrined in their legal systems, does the earth itself have natural inalienable rights? This would include, in turn, the more narrow question of whether animals have rights though I am just as interested in the question of the rights of plants, environments, mountains, seas and so on.

Considering my audience, I don’t actually suspect I need to convincing you that entities other than humans have rights (except, perhaps, for those of you who don’t accept rights talk at all – a position for which there are some very strong justifications). However, despite an assumed general agreement, I do suspect that we aren’t nearly as clear about justifying our claims as we could be. So, I am not really preaching to the choir (or, better, coven) because I think the justification of our claims is what we need to focus on.

To figure out what natural rights do, or do not, exist and who or what can be a rights-bearer it is necessary to come to some understanding of where these natural rights come from. The history of the concept of natural rights, at least in Western European thought from which most rights talk draws its foundation, stretches from the Ancient Stoics, through medieval religious thought, to the modern social contract theorists such as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hutchinson, and Thomas Hobbes. Within this tradition we can find, roughly, four answers to the question of the origin of natural rights which go along with various ways of testing whether something is a right, though frequently these answers overlap in complex ways. I would like to briefly look at each of these in order to get a sense of their inadequacy.

1. Reason as Natural Law

The Stoics never actually argued for the existence of natural “rights” but they did argue for the natural equality of all humans. Their argument rested on several key elements. First, all nature was understood to be ordered according to an overarching order or law. Second, this law was divine and was identified as reason. Third, human reason was a privileged part of this divine natural order, in fact reason made us partially divine.

This line of thought leads to two related conclusions. First, to the extent that we have reason we are equal. This is, in fact, the origin of the idea that natural rights are inalienable (in other words, we can very literally never lose them). If you reflect on the idea of inalienability you can see it is a rather odd idea. Can’t I be chained up? Or killed? Don’t I lose my rights in these cases? The answer is “no”. For the Stoics, and the “inalienable” traditional that follows from them, as long as we can reason we are ultimately free. Even if my body is in chains, the most important part of me – my divine reason – is free. This, incidentally, provides the basis for some Stoics to actually support slavery and social inequalities of all sorts! Because what matters is reason, nothing social inequality does to us can touch our real freedom and equality. Many of the Stoics, as you might suspect, were surprisingly conservative in the outcome of their thought.

The second conclusion to be drawn from the Stoic view is that the source of our knowledge of rights is reason as well. This hooks up with inalienability to provide us with a test that can be applied to rights. If you think something is a natural right, ask whether it is inalienable. If it isn’t, you have no right to it. In other words, nothing worth having can be lost and nothing we have a right to can be taken away. This view is also, obviously, anthropocentric and even falls short of providing rights to all humans since some lack reason. So, for the Stoics, only, but not all, humans have rights (with the addition of gods and any other entities with reason).

The development of these ideas leads to what we find in Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Natural rights are inalienable and uncovered by reason. Both reject the Stoic test as too limited, and instead rely upon the self-evidence of rights. We don’t, in other words, need a test for what counts as a right because our natural rights are immediately apparent and obvious to the view of reason. Jefferson doesn’t try to prove we have natural rights, he claims he doesn’t need to. This has largely landed us in the mess we are today, with generally no system for determining what is or is not a right. Jefferson and Locke also change the sense of inalienability used by the Stoics. For them, a natural right is inalienable because even if the practice of that right is taken away our claim to that right always remains. We always deserve and can demand life and liberty even when we are deprived of the use of them.

2. God

The Stoics, Locke, and Jefferson -as well as the long medieval tradition of natural law theory- all base the origin of rights on a certain conception of the divine. This conception is ultimately monotheistic (the Stoics believed in one ultimate divinity despite the existence of sub-deities) and anthropocentric (in each case we occupy a special position at the head of most or all of nature due to our possession of reason and/or special selection by god).

It is important to stress that contemporary rights theory goes beyond the basis of God in very specific ways. First, and most obviously, natural rights do not rely upon a shared religious background for justification. Second, neither the Stoic nor Biblical god provides a basis for rejecting the social inequality of men and women or the practice of slavery. The Bible clearly supports slavery. In fact the New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Stoic thought, offers arguments in favor of slavery very similar to those found in Stoicism. Most go something like this: social distinctions are natural and divinely willed so it is our duty to rationally fulfill the social roles and positions we find ourselves in, including the role of a slave. This allows both Stoics and the Biblical Paul to assert that a good slave must obey its master and so on. Locke followed the monotheistic reasoning underlying natural rights rather carefully and ended up arguing, at least partially based upon it, in favor of both American slavery and the wholesale theft of land from the Native Americans (see, for example, this excellent recent analysis of Locke’s failures).

Finally, it should be noted that by far the longest use of divinely ensured natural rights was to support the divine right of kings and firm social hierarchies. This shouldn’t be surprising. I have often challenged my students to explain to me why a monarchical metaphysics with a divine all-powerful dictator should be compatible with anything other than a form of political tyranny. It’s a difficult question and not one that all forms of paganism can easily avoid.

3. Nature

Interestingly, the history of natural rights theory hasn’t been particularly focused on nature. Nature has seemed to required the underwriting of “nature’s god” and/or reason. Despite that, we can detach something of an argument-from-nature from natural rights literature. We can derive from the thought of both Locke and Hobbes a sort of principle for deriving from nature a list of rights. Rights would be, on this reading, those things which a living entity naturally feels are its own. So, in nature we fight for our life, our freedom of movement, our family, and things like food and shelter that we have gathered for ourselves. Our instinctive defense of these things marks a natural knowledge of a right to them. From a traditional view, the failing of this thinking is obvious since it doesn’t set humans off from animals who also defend all these things. For this precise reason it is more promising for us. Locke deprived of his Biblical god and the superiority of reason would be left with an argument like this alone. This can be expanded into a capabilities view, similar to that of Martha Nussbaum, that might assert that a natural entity has a right to develop its natural capabilities. Our sheer having of capabilities is a signal of a right to them and their expression/development.

4. Pain and Pleasure – Utilitarianism

Strictly speaking, Utilitarians don’t accept the existence of natural rights for various reasons, but we can talk of something very similar to a rights conception in Utilitarianism based on a limited type of capabilities view. For the utilitarian theorist only one thing is absolutely good, namely pleasure or happiness, and only one thing is absolutely bad, namely pain. This lays a universal obligation upon us to increase, as far as possible, the amount of pleasure or happiness in existence and to decrease the amount of pain. This is, in fact, the basis of the argument by Peter Singer I quote from at the start of this discussion. Animals, as capable of pain and pleasure, are part of our obligation to lessen pain and increase pleasure and might be said to have a right to this type of consideration. Animals have a right to have their suffering and happiness taken into account. Plants, mountains, seas, and so on are not obviously capable of pain or happiness and so do not enter into consideration beyond their instrumental relationship to animals and humanity.

5. No Natural Rights

I should add a brief consideration of the view that there are no natural rights. We can, briefly, present this in at least three main ways. If we understand a right to mark a limit, a space or possession that cannot legitimately be invaded or taken away, then the following three views might be raised. Rousseau suggests that since the state of nature is one of natural abundance and simplicity no natural limits exist, or need exist, between people in nature. It is society that, giving rise to pride and greed, creates property, scarcity and, domination and so necessitates rights. Hobbes argues something like the reverse. In the state of nature all entities have the power to do whatever they wish and so the right to do so. Because all action is a natural right for him, in this sense, then it makes no difference to say either that there are no natural rights or that everything is a natural right. Both lead to Hobbes’ famous “war of all against all” in the state of nature. Finally, since the utilitarian thinks that we must balance the good of the greatest number of entities capable of happiness against any individual concerns there are no predetermined limits protecting the life, liberty, capabilities or goods of any given individual. The majority, the famous “greatest number”, might be said to have rights but no given individual does.

“The Fall of the Titans” Cornelis Cornelisz van Harrlem, 1596-1598

A Pagan Conception of Rights

How can a pagan perspective assist us in the challenge of making sense of the origin, nature and limits of rights? We must first state that we don’t have many historical precursors to work with. Clearly much of pagan history hasn’t been particularly promising when it comes to individual freedoms or social equality – with, of course, rather important exceptions such as many Native American and traditional African cultures. Our strongest precursor might be taken to be the Stoics but, for many reasons, I do not take them to fit fully into a pagan worldview. So, we can’t really ask what pagans have historically had to say about rights. Instead, we must take key elements of several forms of paganism and attempt to work out their implications for natural rights theory.

The first thing we might note deals with the traditional derivation of natural rights from reason and god. The nature of the god in question leads almost inevitable to the focus on reason. For the Stoic, the ultimate god and reason are all but indiscernible. In fact, the Stoics often called the universal divinity, universal law/reason, and human reason by the same Greek word – they called it the Logos. Logos is originally the Greek term for “word” but it came to mean reason amongst many other things. The Old Testament of the Bible reflects a similar view, whether through syncretism or chance, and the New Testament directly plagiarizes from the Stoic view. Thus, in the Old Testament the god of the Bible speaks creation into existence and the “Gospel of John” starts with an almost entirely Stoic claim that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” In this context the divine essence of reality will be located in the intellectual, rational, linguistic spheres of existence. This is also connected to the transcendent nature of a divinity external to creation, a transcendence that will frequently carry over into the rational part of humanity through a rejection of the body and physical nature in general.

The focus on reason and linguistic communities embodied in the natural rights tradition makes a very clear appearance in contemporary arguments about what can, and cannot, be a bearer of rights. Carl Cohen, a long-standing opponent of animal rights arguments, affirms that to have a right means to be able to assert a claim upon others while recognizing your own obligation to respond to their claims. In other words, only members of rational linguistic “moral communities” can be understood to have rights. It is clear to Cohen, though not to many of his critics, that only humans can make rational moral claims upon others and recognize those claims when they are made upon them. In other words, whether or not something has rights and what those rights are has everything to do with intellectual and linguistic capabilities.

In sharp contrast, consider the pagan worldview of Hesiod’s Theogony. In this origin story the cosmos arises out of the sexual and asexual bodily reproduction of families of gods. These gods, and the evolving universe they form through their reproduction, are largely inseparable from bodily nature. There is importantly a deep identity between much of nature and its divinities. To appreciate the importance of this, ask yourself whether the Biblical god can be understood to have rights. It’s an odd question because the answer is that the god of the Bible probably has all rights, or rather absolute right. What would this imply, then, for the rights of a natural world made up of gods in ever more various proportions and hierarchies? To cultures for which the divine is frequently also embodied and natural, rather than spiritually transcendent over nature, the world around us makes constant demands upon us in a manner very like the way traditional rights bearers do. Rivers and mountains, ancient trees and unplowed fields, all make legitimate demands for various types of respect.

A pagan theory of rights, then, will not be focused upon reason or, necessarily, a divine law-giver’s plans and demands upon a tightly structured cosmic hierarchy. The hierarchy of divinities, cosmic forces, and realities within the pagan worldview tend to be partly natural and partly political in nature. Zeus, for example, plots and fights both to gain his position and to maintain it. Even his power, however, is tentative and maintained by the overall balance of politics amidst divinities and humans.

The overlap of nature and divinity in a pagan view presents a unique opportunity. For once we might fully turn to nature for guidance about the origin and extent of natural rights. What is more, it is clear that though our pagan worldview might direct our attention to nature we need not depend upon divine revelation or dictate for our understanding of rights. Paganism might teach us that nature is divine and lays demands upon us but a pagan faith is not necessary to accept the conclusions we can draw from this.

Let us conceive the cosmos, and all its subsystems from planets to seas to mountains and so on, to be living much as the Bolivian “Law of Mother Earth” does – in other words let us embrace animism or pan-vitalism. We can begin to approach this by means of the capabilities view mentioned previously. We start with animals and plants, recognizing that each has a set of capabilities and impulses it seeks to express and fulfill. All things being equal (which, of course, they never are) each thing has an implicit right to pursue the path of its growth, life, and death. To put it as simply as possible, taken in isolation each thing has a right to exist.

But, despite the tendency towards what we might call biological chauvinism, not only organic entities express a nature and follow a path of development and change. All things individually express a type of nature and, collectively, take part in nestled interdependent systems. There is a Zen art dedicated to finding and appreciating examples of “perfect” stones, in other words stones which best capture the nature of being a stone. These won’t be polished gems or dramatic outcroppings, but rather simple stones that somehow express in an exemplary way the basic nature of being a stone. While any debate about what this nature is might be interminable, just like debates about the ultimate nature of humanity, nonetheless it doesn’t seem absurd to attempt to better grasp what the nature expressed by stones (or any other natural entity) might be. And it also doesn’t seem absurd to suggest that when such a stone is ground into gravel or melted for industrial purposes something has been lost and some wrong may have been done.

When I was a child my neighbors cut down an oak tree that had lived for several centuries. I cried inconsolably, filled with a sadness and anger that told me at a basic level that something terrible had been done – an important obligation had been broken and an important good had been destroyed. Who were they to so casually dismiss an entity that was old before their ancestors had even come to this county? I recently went hiking in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park and there, amidst trees that were massive before the supposed birth of Christ, one can’t help but feel an overpowering awe and need for respect and even worship. Not only do these entities have a right to exist, they have a dignity that goes along with an imperative that this be respected.

While we often think about rights in terms of purely negative limits on the powers of others, rights go along with responsibilities and obligations. A right to life or liberty demands that I respect these same rights in others. But, more than this, a right to life or liberty also lays an obligation on my shoulders to facilitate the living and freedom of others. It is not, as many libertarians might think, purely a right to be left alone and let everyone else alone in turn. Rights are expressions of communal membership, of being part of a dynamic system seeking to further its own development. Rights are the mark of our position in an environment, in nature. The sheer right, then, that I have to my existence and self-development is mirrored in my obligation to protect and pursue the existence and self-development of the world of which I form a part.

Allow me to restate the previous points in a more schematic form for the sake of clarity. Informed by paganism, but without need to rely upon it for justification, I argue that:

1. To the extent that animals fight for their lives and development they express a right to existence and self-expression.

2. Plants, similarly, strive to grow and survive, expressing the same right.

3. Even non-biological entities are self-sustaining systems which resist certain changes and, when they change, change in a manner uniquely expressing their nature and so they, too, express a right to existence and self-expression.

4. Collectively, these elements form larger complex systems which, in turn, strive to change in various ways and resist other changes and so express the same natural claim to rights.

5. These rights are nestled, one within another, and interconnected such that no purely individual atomistic right to be left alone is feasible. Rather, rights imply collective responsibility and obligations one to another. Some entities fulfill or fail these obligations without rational thought or consciousness, others do not, but the distinction is not particularly important.

6. All existence is a drive to be, and to change, which assumes and must be granted a basic legitimacy.

“Dancing with Mother Nature” by Paul Baliker

 Nature’s Rights: The Model of Art

The philosophy Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that when a work of art is created, Being itself is increased. Similarly, sculptors frequently describe their work not as forcing material into some shape but rather as releasing and realizing the potential form that was already present in the material. The sculptor assists the object in its development and self-expression. Arguing for the rights of nature leads to some exceptionally difficult problems which the enriching nature of art might help us address.

If each thing, due to its sheer existence and path of development, has a right to exist a libertarian understanding of rights might lead us into a rather striking form of nihilism. From this view I can do nothing, can change nothing, without doing wrong. The ant I unknowningly tread upon today has been wronged. There is something right, I would argue, about elements of this view. All existence comes at a price to those things existing around us and many elements of the way most of us live today accentuate this price to unjust proportions. But, ultimately, the message of the rights of nature is not that all existence and action is wrong but rather that all existence and action comes with responsibility. As parts of an interwoven cosmos seeking to joyfully express its nature there is no exit from responsibility – we are, as Dostoyevsky puts it, “responsible for all to all”. How can I eat and end the life of the entity devoured? Only with a firm acceptance of my obligation to express more fully in my life the potential of that entity and a respect for its sacrifice.

It may be that in some art the material is devoured, destroyed in the making, but in the best art – in the truest art – the material comes more fully to life and expression. Art is the act of freeing the potential of what is, of augmenting and nurturing the growth and expression of existence, and it is this that nature demands of us. Neither master and engineer nor illegitimate interloper, we are part of nature’s living and called to take our part with loving devotion to the value of each and every other participant be it tree, stone, bird or star. This means, of course, an end to easy answers. If my interest is in having a nice clear list of forbidden actions and obligatory actions I am going to be much disappointed. We should not be surprised at this, as responsibility comes hand in hand with the obligation to think carefully and risk failure.

There is, at the most basic level, one natural right and it is shared by all things: the right to exist as a process of self-expression. It comes united with an obligation: the obligation to respect and assist the existence and self-expression of each thing around me. Sometimes this obligation will involve killing and destruction but only in service to a greater expression of being. But most often it will involve nurturing and a loving service to the world and cosmos of which we are children.

apple_picking_in_tree
Illustration from “Little Wide-awake, Annual for Children” (1883) by Lucy D Sale Barker

What is Property?

There are several practical and legal implications of this view but what I intended as a brief discussion has already gone on for too long so I will rest content with mentioning what is likely the most dramatic and controversial. What does the right to existence and self-expression imply for other traditional rights? Most importantly, it implies that our concept of property and the right to it is deeply flawed.

Locke, and recent libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick, derive the right to property from the right to life (or existence, as I have been calling it). The idea is this: the right to life is a basic property right. I own my body and this body cannot be taken from me. This then leads to the right to liberty, as my ownership over my body also means that my use of this body (with rather striking exceptions for Locke) cannot be limited. Now, when I work I use my body to transform something else. I invest some of my body – namely bodily energy and work – into the thing transformed. This makes the thing created part of my body in a limited sense. I have invested bodily life and so the thing becomes an extended part of my bodily life. When I work to grow apples my use of my body in the work makes the apples part of me in a very limited sense, so my basic right to ownership over my body extends to the thing produced. (Interestingly, this is also the basis of much Marxist thought mediated through Hegel’s adoption of similar conceptions of work through which the world becomes an expression of the self and, as it were, a second body. It is also worth noting that this is the basis of Locke’s argument in favor of taking land from the Native Americans. They didn’t work the land, he claimed, and so didn’t gain ownership through transformation of it.)

The view I have presented contains a different conception of both work and the natural world, largely because of the rejection of anthropocentrism. When I grow a tree it is as much the case that my body becomes part of the tree, part of its process of self-expression. The tree “owns” me just as much as I own it. But, even the concept of ownership is off here. From a perspective that does not prioritize reason and, connectedly, the mind-soul over the body and natural existence then I can’t be said to own my body. I am my body, it is not property. Similarly, without anthropocentrism, we are not tempted to see the world as a collection of raw materials for use such that I can imagine making the tree, or anything else, part of myself without any thought to its own individual existence. The tree and I might be in partnership, but it does not become me and I do not become it. We are part of something larger, but neither dominates in the manner required for ownership. Furthermore, the tree is also in partnership with things other than myself which belies any claim to an exclusive relationship with it.

My right to self-expression includes my right not to have my partnerships unduly interfered with and broken. You can’t come along and chop down the tree I have worked to grow without weighty reasons, but it is wrong to think that this entity with an existence and nature of its own is “mine” in any robust sense or that my relationship with it overpowers all other relationships it has. I have a right to have my relationships respected and protected, except when those relationships become unjustifiably abusive, dominating, or destructive. So, in an interconnected world viewed through the lens of the right to exist, the right to relationships replaces rights to property.

Kadmus

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.


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The Mega Golem: A Review of Carl Abrahamsson’s “Reasonances”

Reasonances by Carl Abrahamsson, Scarlet Imprint 2014

reasonances

If gods can die, leaving us to wander amidst their bones in the miasma of their defuse rot, then gods can be born. Neither ex nihilo nor ad nihilum travel the lives of the gods. Perhaps some gods find their birth in the work of the magician-artist. Amidst the conquest of noise over signal, the dispersion bred of accelerated techno-empirico-capitalist-fragmentation pushing all apart into isolated well-measured sameness, what can bring about a return of some sense of the whole? It is against a background of such considerations that the book Reasonances takes form.

“Meta-programming through fiction and art is the most scientific and poetic way there is of solving our problems, at least according to me. The words affix themselves to the worlds. The worlds filter themselves through the words. The images become parts of the imaginations, the nations of images, all seeking each other out like grounded magnets, polarities or cruising sybarites of the night. If we stop and look, we can see a pattern, or several. And we can use these patterns as tools more than ever before in our own quantum quilts and our own Mega Golem processes.” (Reasonances p. 49)

Carl Abrahamsson’s book is many things: a prismatic net of reflections on Twentieth-Century occultism, art, and their overlaps; a philosophical engagement with the porous border between the magical and artistic processes; a surprisingly hopeful walking along the knife edge of market nihilism, ecological disaster, political corruption, technological acceleration and the dawning of a new way of life; an extended meditation on death and the fragmentary remains of artists and magicians past; a call for the creation of a new divinity, the Mega Golem.

Reproduction of the Prague Golem
Reproduction of the Prague Golem

“However, in the end nothing matters. But until then, some things do. Your own mind, for instance, and your own time.” (Reasonances p. 51)

Reasonances is a book of missed appointments, uncompleted artworks, lost connections. For Abrahamsson there will be no future revels with Anton LaVey in San Francisco, though we are graced with a living sense of LaVey’s life and effect as a master magician. We may never know what the moviemaker, Conrad Rooks, was crafting in his bungalow filled with computers in Thailand. But we learn in these pages about his struggle with drugs and the way this struggle was definitive for his film Chappaqua. Ever wonder what it was like to be friends with William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Man Ray, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac? Conrad Rooks tells you by telling Abrahamsson. But his final work, drawn from the void stretching from his two great films “Chappaqua” (1966) and “Siddhartha” (1972) to his death in 2011, remains a mystery. We get the sense of an expansive vision, incomplete.

We witness Abrahamsson’s love for Lady Jaye, half of the ongoing “Breyer P-Orridge Existential Art Project” aimed at the creation of one hermaphroditic entity from the lives of Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye, and are left to wonder what remains when half of that one entity has died. Genesis P-Orridge speaks as “we” but Abrahamsson speaks of loss and the dream of a new totality become a fragment.

In Reasonances we witness a fascinating excavation of largely forgotten figures at the borders. At the border of art and the occult we learn of Rosaleen Norton, the Australian artist depicting bacchanals and occult rituals, who faced social rejection and police persecution from the 1940s until her death in 1979. At the border of mysticism and science we find the German philosopher Ernst Junger and hear of his experiments with hallucinogenics, including experiences with LSD shared with its discoverer Albert Hofmann, interwoven with his experiences during the World Wars. Destruction and dispersion face off against the divine he approached through drug experimentation.

“The Seance” by Rosaleen Norton

Reasonances’ cast of characters is extensive and it weaves stories of forgotten acts of bravery and enchanting personalities that enrich and enliven the history of art and the occult while remaining challenging throughout. What are we to make of Yukio Mishima’s suicide when it is understood as a work of art and connected to his blending of homoeroticism and nationalism in the milieu of the Samurai code? How are we to navigate the call to freedom in Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law when faced with its seeming glorification of violence and the rule of the strong? How truly critical of the Nazis was Junger whose work, by and large, was admired by them – including by Hitler himself? The book is consistently a work of provocation, seeking to inspire questioning and action without dominating its reader with prefabricated solutions or simple answers.

We could go on to explore the extensive interviews with the Thelemic moviemaker Kenneth Anger, or the exceptionally careful orienting of the life and works of the important novelist Lord Bulwer-Lytton within the occult circles of 19th century England, but ultimately all of these stories and histories are examples of Reasonances’ larger vision – the dream of the Mega Golem.

“As an experiment, try to leave the hermetic and arcane frames of reference alone for a while and use instead those of artistic creation and, if you feel really daring, those of fiction.” (Reasonances p. 41)

To understand the Mega Golem we must first recognize it as the axis of Abrahamsson’s proposal that art needs to learn from the occult and occult practice needs to learn from art. The connection here is not at all unusual, as will be apparent to those with experience in the occult or with knowledge of the history of art. Cave painting, story telling, dance and music all were originally largely the province of priestess and priests, shamans and mystics – occultists par excellence. All served a vital function in bringing about changes to the world of ancient people and maintaining the metaphysical structure and nature of those worlds. Looking at the situation from the contemporary occult angle the connection seems just as obvious. The practice of magic involves visionary states of consciousness much like those used in forms of artistic inspiration, handcrafted tools and sets, dramatic impersonations of gods, poetic invocations and songs.

Beyond the historical overlap, Abrahamsson offers a deeper connection between the processes involved in art and magic. Both involve the control of causal forces through non-causal or non-rational means. In other words, both recognize that there is something about their process of creation that cannot be fully understood or, if it were to be understood, the very act of analysis would destroy the effectiveness of the process. We can see this in the overlap of inspiration and mystical experience in the creation of both works of art and magic. Each starts with the play of unconscious forces rising to consciousness, the moment of inspiration, that must then be distilled into a singular embodiment. Each involves a trust in, and channeling of, intuition. Each manifests a new reality.

This brings us naturally to the Mega Golem. Both the magical act and artistic creation suffer from potential failings or, at least, what can be seen as failings against a certain background. Magical acts can be dominated by a lower worldly will, in other words they can be channeled almost exclusively towards short-term selfish ends. Personal gain in all its various forms, from accentuating natural talents and uncovering insight to gaining money or power, often dominates magical goals even when hidden under the rubric of ongoing initiation. Art, on the other hand, can be devoid of coherent worldly will and instead merely the outcome of immediate inspiration and intuition. We might say, in the case of both magic and art, that inspiration and will need to be conjoined in a final product that goes beyond the immediate ends of the creator.

For magic to escape its solipsism and art to escape its self-indulgent immediacy each must wed themselves to a goal that goes beyond the individual. This is the Mega Golem, a new divinity built from individual artistic-magical acts and works.

“Consider this idea: new, consciously made, magical, talismanic totems as members/parts of a new divinity. Artworks of different kinds become cells and building blocks of a new pagan pantheon of intelligence, of whose essence future generations can rely on and partake. Special importance should be given to indigenous, traditional, tribal and folk culture, woven into the fabric of genuine human creation. The final times of our mercurial technocratic culture could actually help in setting this up before these new gods are properly established enough to live on through the rituals of the post-technocracy-survivals.” (Reasonances p. 30)

We might speculate that the idea of the Mega Golem owes its origin to a distinct aspect of both magic and art. In magic, particularly Chaos Magic, we encounter the idea of the living Thought Form or Egregor. This is an entity that begins as an individual or collective creature of imagination, which, once invested with will or magical energy, becomes an independent spiritual entity with its own lasting existence. Similarly, in art, the work which begins in the artist’s internal processes eventually takes flight into a world where it will give rise to its own interpretations and maintain its own unique existence beyond the intentions of the artist. Both the artwork and Egregor are outcomes of acts of creation that develop, in some sense, a will and life of their own.

The idea of the Mega Golem opens up the possibility that both art and magic might overcome their own limitations. From channeling or communicating with divinities we move to crafting them in a communal form, from creating works of art we move to creating a new world and way of life.

We get a better sense of the central role of self-overcoming in the texture of Reasonances when we consider Abrahamsson’s discussion of Babalon as a magical formula. After tracing the history of the figure of the whore of Babylon from ancient practices of holy prostitution, through the Book of Revelations, to Crowley’s own recreation of the concept he distills what he takes to be the central elements of the magical process that Babalon came to represent. This process is one of self-development through the transgression of taboos. As the author rightly points out, the process requires one to transgress taboos that are still meaningful and powerful within one’s own psyche, not just arbitrary social limitations one has already rejected. Instead, we challenge our own limits and go beyond our own comfort zones through acts of reinvention that release pent up energies within our own being.

William Blake's
William Blake’s “Whore of Babylon”

We can see each of Abrahamsson’s investigations of, and interviews with, artists and thinkers as case studies in the practice of the formula of Babalon and the uniting of art and magic in a way that might serve the birth of the Mega Golem. Similarly, we can see the very idea of the Mega Golem as a self-overcoming on the part of its inventor. Repeatedly within Reasonances Abrahamsson reveals his own occult upbringing within the context of the Thelemic Ordo Templi Orientis, the Church of Satan and the more Chaos Magic focused Temple ov Psychick Youth in his heavily individualistic understanding of the nature of human existence and both artistic and occult work. Abrahamsson claims in the concluding interview of the book that, “…everything is individual. Any collective or communal decision is based on a consensus formed by individuals. Hence, politics may seem to be rooted in ideas and ideals, but in actual fact the driving force is always individual will, that may or may not be joined by others of a similar persuasion.” (Reasonances p. 160-161). Yet this very view, while exceptionally common in today’s world and a major aspect of most understandings of both libertarian Satanism and Thelema, is a central artifact of the technocratic age Abrahamsson wishes to get beyond. T.O.P.Y., in this regard, is something of a mixed heritage. Based on the use of sigil magic aimed at self-overcoming through the achievement of personal private desires, the organization’s basic structure and goals were nonetheless aimed at the creation of productive networks of artistic exchange and support. Much like the Mega Golem itself, we might suggest that the process of T.O.P.Y. began with the individual in order to escape the contemporary prison of isolation that goes along with our almost unthinking acceptance of radical individualism.

Were the Mega Golem to live it would require a specific transformation from being a conglomeration of individual works into a united whole of its own that goes well beyond any totality of pieces. In fact, through an act of retrospective creation we would have to come to see each step in the forming of the new divinity as already implicit and necessitated by its end. We might say that ultimately each piece of the Golem will come to be seen as an expression of its being willed from beyond the individual artist or occultist. This tension between the individual and the whole forms a central paradox of the book from Abrahamsson’s early call for a renewed “…harmony with the macrocosmic, natural life force. Inherent in this harmony is the adaptation to and, importantly, reverential respect for the movements and routines of the whole.” (Reasonances p. 18) to his concluding claims about the priority of the individual. Abrahamsson rightly sees that this paradox is overcome in the moment when the creator is created by her or his creation. The artist becomes the expression of the work, as the magician becomes a vehicle for the magic. Ultimately, then, the call for an active will-driven magico-artistic creation of a Mega Golem aiming beyond the individual towards a communal and natural macrocosmic goal serves to subvert the focus on individual will. At the risk of putting the project in a way that might be a bit disturbing, each contributor to the Mega Golem serves, or retroactively will have served, the new divinity’s will. Ultimately the project cannot be fully understood from the perspective of the individual.

It is not adequate to respond to a proposal as daring and fascinating as that of the Mega Golem through purely analytic means. Instead, it calls out for an active and creative response. It calls out for a contribution. If you could create a divinity, what aspects would you have it contain? If you were to craft a new vision of reality, a new mode of life, a new metaphysical framework of meaning, what would it look like or smell like or sound like? Each of us alone in isolation at our computer screens face in this moment a communal call from the macrocosm – name me. Give me form and, in doing so, find yourself as an expression of the cosmos we all share.

“No matter what, I hereby set the Mega Golem free. This lecture and this text is the right side of its brain, perhaps one of many brains. It may be enough to give it life, or it may not. It is an occult experiment that is also artistic. It is an artistic experiment that is also occult. I have vaguely attempted to state here today that I don’t really believe there is any major difference between these two spheres. What this Mega Golem will or can do is no longer exclusively up to me. I have done my bit and the rest is now up to you.” (Reasonances p. 43)

In response to the call and in thanks for the work Carl Abrahamsson has given us in Reasonances, I would like to offer a humble contribution of my own – a part of the Golem’s heart:

An Elk hart in the shade from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
An Elk hart in the shade from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Something stirs –
Where once rivers flowed,
Where the ghosts of trees rest
Unremembered.
Something wakens –
From concrete
Once mossy banks,
And blinks.
It cherishes –
How the crows used to gossip in the branches
Just so,
And the stones of the river winked
With hidden quartz.
It shelters –
The echoes of days without time
When walks went on forever
And we watched clouds play tag
With our backs bruised with grass stains.
Something smiles –
Where slim stalks will grow
And angry voices will rise in joy
To demand life for the earth
The voiceful wind
The wine dark sea
The shivering wave
The silken sky
Once more.
Something remembers –
The songs we will strike
Like bonfires
In the fields at the end of history.
You can hear its voice calling us together
Hidden in the folds of the breeze
In the corners of the night
When no tread paces.
“Golem?” it asks,
“Call me Hope.”

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 .

Capitalist Leveling and the Problem of Pagan Values

By Kadmus

In my essay from April 27th, “Towards a Pagan Politics”, I claimed that capitalism levels all values while paganism is committed to a pluralism of irreducibly different values. I lacked time and space then to fully flesh out this point, but I would like to dedicate myself here to clarifying and expanding upon the claim.

What is Value?

IMAG0432

I think that my claim could have been made even stronger, specifically that while capitalism starts out as the dominance of one value over all others it becomes a complete loss of all sense of value. Capitalism is a nihilism of the most banal sort. Paganism, on the other hand, is dedicated to the rich complexity, vibrancy and value-laden nature of life. To see how and why this is the case we need to investigate the concept of value rather closely.

Today we have a highly subjective concept of value (which is, itself, largely an effect of capitalism). In other words, we understand the noun “value” from its verb form – we primarily understand value as what a thing has because it is valued by someone. Without human valuing, on this reason, nothing would have value. In other words, value has no reality in and of itself but rather derives from human actions or resides in human minds alone. The models here, of course, are the little pieces of paper and metal which we make into valuable money because we treat it as such.

But the actual word for value, and the origins of the concept behind the word, comes from words for strength and power. Relative terms, surely, but not subjective ones. Value, valor, virtue, virility all share the same origin. Far from the model of money, their most primordial model is fire (another word which is cognate with value) and, we might suggest, the incontestable importance of light and the sun.

Value shines. It is that which shines-out to us, that which shines for us. It does not shine because we make it shine, but rather it calls to us as the sun draws the plant that leans towards it. Nature, everywhere, values because it responds to the obvious presence of real value. At the most basic level we might say that wherever there is the force of attraction there is value. The earth values the sun when the day-star sets its path and motivation.

Human values are no different, they are the draw of things of power and importance that appear to us and define us as those who can see them. Value, then, is inseparable from the concept of a calling. We do not, cannot, determine or choose what will call us. We can only listen, or refuse to listen, to the call.

If we contemplate the model of values as fire and as light we see that values determine how the world shows up for us. Certain things leap out at us, whether dramatic or small, as important, worthy of respect, or in need of a response from us. Values, then, are reality’s opening of a conversation with us – a conversation to be enacted through what we do. The light determines the look of things, what shows up and what doesn’t, and how things appear. It is in the light of how reality reveals itself to me, as value – worth – beauty – truth – that I become who I am and act upon the world as it has appeared.

Divinities and Nature

WALDEN4
Walden Pond

One of the oldest forms of value are the goddesses and gods whose shining appearance cast the whole of reality into a certain aspect and form. Since before history, when values called to humanity they called through the voice of the divinities. For the same reason, when ancient heroes displayed valor or virtue they were understood to embody or be empowered by one of the gods, they become the active body of value. This is, in fact, what virtue first meant, to embody value i.e. the power and truth of a divinity. Far from subjective creations, value was understood to be the revealing of a truth most frequently encountered as a divinity.

This connection between values and divinities explains, as well, the connection between divinities and nature. In the power and beauty of the river shone forth the face of a goddess or god, the aspect of a value. In the terror and force of the mountain or storm unveiled the might of some divinity and a demand – a value.

None of this is to suggest, however, that divinities are symbols of values. The situation is far more the reverse. We have emptied values of their active vitality, and so find it hard to understand that values are experienced in the action and event of basic truths, forces, powers and realities appearing to us. Values, as active agents, are better taken as symbols of the divinities than the reverse.

To repeat a few points from my previous essay, pagan values will be distinct in being plural. The recognition of several diverse and separate divinities is, at the same time, the recognition that reality is made up of a plurality of irreducible forces and truths. There are always many values, and they cannot be translated one into another or reduced one to another. The many values, as the many gods, are incommensurable – they share no common measure against which they can be organized and unified. There is no unity, no totality, no final truth and ultimate value. Despite that, however, certain values and gods will call to each individual in a unique manner. I will serve certain divinities, enlightened by certain values, and you others. It is only together that we gain a better grasp of the endless plurality that is reality but not through totalizing the diversity of values, truths and ways of life.

Profit and Power

Ancient Greek coin replica by Slavey Petrov
Ancient Greek coin replica by Slavey Petrov

Capitalism is necessarily monotheist in its metaphysics in the sense that it reduces all values to one ultimate value, specifically the standard of price. The market admits, indeed relies upon, the fact that people will value different things and disagree about a given thing’s value but one element is asserted (and echoed in economics) without question – that all things will be reducible to a price either individually or based on the statistical average of what people are willing to pay. We see obvious examples of this in terms of risk calculations that determine how many people can be injured or killed by a product before the risk gets too expensive for a company. Human life, suffering, and death can all be reduced to a price. So too can environmental destruction. How much profit, it is asked, can be extracted from the earth before the destruction outweighs and benefit? Forest and mountains, entire species and nations, all have their price. For the market and the capitalist there is absolutely nothing which can not be numbered, calculated – price checked. In this sense capitalism is leveling, it levels the diversity of values to the basic point of price.

It is easy to assume, then, that capitalism places wealth or profit as the ultimate value to which all others may be reduced but this is, in fact, naïve. For many the goal might be wealth or profit, but the illusory nature of wealth is inherent to capitalism’s own system. Money is just worthless paper and metal unless people behave as if it is not, and the wealthiest people and wealthiest businesses have far more money than the search for wealth would really justify. Wealth is a finite value, but capitalist leveling knows no end. Wealth is finite in the sense that it can only be used and enjoyed up to a certain point, beyond that point you have more than you can use or you have too much for there to be anything or anyone left to buy. A society made up of three wildly wealthy people and a hoard of the desperately poor is a society in poverty for poor and rich alike, there will be nothing to own because nothing produced and no one to sell it. This is why the collapse of the middle class is always the death knell for those who value wealth.

Capitalism knows no limit because it isn’t about wealth, it is about power and control. The rise of capitalism wasn’t about the desire and valuing of wealth conquering all other values, it was about certain social classes and members of professions attempting to gain power over other classes and roles. In this sense the dream of capitalism and science are similar: complete and total control – the ability to order and measure all things. This move, however, from profit to control is the move from leveling to nihilism. We might, similarly, understand it as a transition from trade to The Market. To understand this transition it will be necessary to briefly turn our eyes to Karl Marx and the analysis he offers in Capital.

Money and Market, from Leveling to Nihilism

stock-footage-stock-market

Money and trade have been around for a long time, long before capitalism proper. The most ancient cultures engaged in trade and, indeed, had gods of trade. But despite the existence of money trade wasn’t about profit measured in cash, it was about concrete diverse goods. In Capital Marx lays out two primary and different processes of exchange in which money might function. First, and most ancient, is the use of money as a medium for exchange. We can represent this in the following way in terms of Money (M) and the concrete goods of Commodities (C):

C -> M -> C

This process represents the use of a good you have, say grain you have grown, to arrive at money through trade that is then used to purchase another good such as shoes. This is the same basic process as direct trade of goods where grain would be exchanged for shoes but money as a medium allows for a wider range of trade since it can be used to buy many things and so doesn’t require the grain producer to find a shoe maker in need of grain. The goal here is goods, or commodities, and the process can be used in service to any set of values since various values can be served through the goods/commodities we aim to purchase. This process can also be in service to wealth, as the collective commodities the process aims at might by those of luxury, riches, and so on. This is what, indeed, most people think goes on in the market, which misses the fundamental nature of capitalism.

The above ancient process transforms in more modern capitalism into this process:

M -> C -> M

Here the goal of the process and the starting position of the process are different. We begin with money, and use it to purchase commodities (or the means to produce commodities) in order to then sell the commodity for a profit. It is only here that profit can make sense, and indeed the basic idea of investment – the process through which one uses money to make money. While in the first process the diversity of values determines what might be worth pursuing for yourself, the second process equates all goods and values to a basic monetary value, which is what ultimately comes out of the process at the end. These two processes can be distinguished in terms of use-value versus exchange-value. A things use-value is how much it is worth to any given person based on their needs and desires. How valuable are shoes to me at this time? It is not a type of value which is easily or naturally reduced to a number. A things exchange-value, on the other hand, is what amount of money I can get for it when selling it. It makes sense to say that, at this time, shoes have the use-value for me of about the same as a pair of pants but not as much value as a new computer. But we can not say this of exchange-value, which is always immediately presented in terms of money and can only be tied to goods through a secondary process.

We can see the contrast between these two processes clearly if we consider the difference between ancient trade, and the values it frequently served, and the modern Market economy. Ancient trade was most distinctly in service of diversity and plurality. Its gods, such as Janus and Hermes, were gods of new beginnings and doorways. Trade was united, unavoidably, with travel and so the gods of trade were also the gods of travel. The collection of values which group around these related ideas of newness, beginnings, openness, and travel make clear that trade was undertaken in the spirit of curiosity and cultural enrichment rather than strictly of profit or wealth. The image of ancient trade was the wild diversity of the agora marketplace or bazaar. The marketplace was a failure if it lacked a pluralism of goods and life. Money, while perhaps used for exchange (though not always so used), hardly features into it at all.

In contrast, the image of the modern Market is the bank or stock exchange, replete with numbers and abstract symbols of exchange-value – money. An ancient marketplace can’t function without diversity and strangeness, but the modern Market does not require diversity. This is why it is possible to use money to buy money and then, in turn, to make money from the exchange. This is what happens in currency exchanges, or the purchasing and selling of debt. The modern Market can be strictly empty of commodities and still function, because what is being bought and sold are certain patterns of money. It is not, however, just that the modern Market doesn’t require diversity of goods. Rather, it actively militarizes against it. Since all things on the Market must be reduced to price, i.e. exchange-value, there is already inherent in the Market a basic drive towards interchangeability and similarity. Things that are too new, or too weird, become difficult to price and must, at all cost, be either dismissed from the Market or made to conform to the Market’s prices. But, of course, in contemporary capitalism the world is the Market, and vice versa, so all things must be reduced and ordered. Even “priceless” works of art are insured for specific amounts.

The fact that money itself, much like luxury and wealth, can be exchanged and priced makes clear that the final goal of capitalism and its one world Market is not money, wealth or profit. The goal is order, of a very special sort. The Market’s goal is an ordered world in which all things are reduced to their Market price, a world in which one need never deal with faces, textures, sights or feelings but rather numbers alone. The essence of the Capitalist Market is the force of translation and reduction. In this it shares an essence with modern industrial science, whose goal is the reduction of all things to raw materials from which power (might like price) is to be extracted and transformed. Mountain to coal, coal to energy, energy to work and so on – the process of transformation pursues only its own growth so that anything that is produced is so only to increase the power of production. Ultimately in each case power seeks only its own growth without end or purpose, and this growth of power is a process of leveling or pricing.

It is precisely this lack of goal or purpose that represents the nihilistic nature of the Capitalist Market. It ultimately knows no goal and no specific values. It is without commitment. In this sense, it is also without actors. The C.E.O. is a tool of the ongoing growth and ordering of the Market as much as anyone else. None escape the invisible claw. There is no outside the process, and so no ultimate leader or beneficiary of it. Even the richest and most powerful people in the world have a very specific market value that marks the point at which they can be exchanged for someone or something else.

This unbounded nature of capitalism may derive from its historical and conceptual connection with monotheism with its transcendental creator god. For many pagan theologies the divinities are present within, indeed are part of, reality. For most forms of monotheism, on the other hand, the one god transcends reality and pre-exists it. Taking this one transcendent god as an ultimate value requires a rejection, whether explicitly or implicitly, of nature and the world.

We see here, for example, the place of the myths of the Fall which define both human nature and nature in general as corrupt and human life as a punishment and trial. Paganism, on the other hand, most frequently embraces life and the world while avoiding the world and life rejection of transcendental monotheism. Max Weber demonstrated convincingly that capitalism is deeply tied to Christian theology. It enshrines the virtues of hard work and moderation and translates the presence of god’s grace and salvation into success on the market. Since, however, the ultimate goal of salvation is never to be found in this world, the “grace” experienced or demonstrated through work and capitalism similarly aims at an infinite transcendent goal that can never be captured in this world. We should not, then, be surprised that capitalism disregards all worldly values, realities and lives (human, animal or plant) in much the same way monotheism frequently does.

Integrity and Reality

Flickr - Argenberg - Sand dunes (2007-05-226)

There is, ultimately, one thing that the Capitalist Market cannot tolerate, and that is integrity. We have made clear the sense in which the Market process is a process without limit. It will allow, and can calculate the price and profit of, any action. Cities and nations have a price, as indeed the capitalist resistance to acting on Climate Change makes clear, as do capitalist machinations leading to warfare. The day will come when the full planet will have a price, once the possibility of moving elsewhere becomes a reality.

Integrity consists of a commitment to a given value or set of values, it marks the limit of action beyond which a person will not go. We use the term “integrity” because it is the unifying point, the ultimate defining commitment, which constitutes any given person’s character. Discover what is most important to a person, what they will never harm or destroy – what they will die for the sake of, and you have uncovered that person’s character and the point of their integrity. The Market has no such limit, and those in full service to it such that they will always do what the Market reveals as profitable likewise have no character. They exist in a world in which the call of reality – its revelation in terms of beauty, divinity, or truth – is ignored as impractical.

In this way we can see that the Market requires a dramatic ignorance of reality and truth which results in divorcing what it insists is “practical”, “profitable” and “reasonable” from what is grounded in reality and the world. The Market is a phantom, an illusory claw, a mathematical dream run hopelessly awry. It demands that we ignore, at first seemingly temporarily but ultimately permanently, everything that calls to us as worth pursuing or preserving and all that we are drawn to love and revere. For many of us this is the earth and its children – animal, plant and human. Also it might be the full richness of different ways of life, various cultures, complex history, the spectrum of visions revealing the wild complexity of meanings and values. In the face of the Market the pagan says “No” to the dominance of any one value and “No” to a limitless nihilistic process of destruction and control. Here, in part, is our integrity, where we draw the line and state clearly that some things, many things, even most things have no market price. We live in the Priceless World because it is a world of Real Values.

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 .


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Towards a Pagan Politics

We all must begin in our own way. How does a pagan address capitalism?

To answer this question I feel the need to make clear and sure the foundation of my own views on paganism’s relation to politics. If, as pagans, we are called to a social mission and not just a spiritual one then we must get clear on how the one translates into the other. So, I will attempt here to investigate the meeting of politics and paganism in preparation for more concrete adventures later. So let us go and see what wars amongst the gods settled by human juries, the imperialism of Athens and Rome, and the community councils of the Akan people can teach us about where and who we are.

Politics and Metaphysics

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“The Last Senate of Julius Caesar” by Raffaele Giannetti

Each aspect of our lives reflects, whether we see it or not, our deepest beliefs about the nature of reality and the place of humans within it. Our ethics, our politics, our religion all enshrine our most basic grasp of what exists and how these existents relate to each other. It is tempting to think that religion has, or need have, nothing to do with politics. Yet every politics rests on an ethics, a belief about the nature of right and wrong or, even more basically, a belief about the nature of the good life and every ethics is based on a metaphysics. Until we have some ideas about what the universe is like we cannot know how we are to live in it and amongst one another. Often our metaphysical commitments are most clear in our religion and, to that extent, religion and politics are inseparable.

If I think that humanity is vicious, brutal, lacking in self-control and natural harmony I will likely favor a powerful centralized government or totalitarian regime that alone can rule the unruly with might. With similar views I might favor the same form of government out of the belief that power alone is valuable and worthy of pursuit, and so seek at all costs to make myself ruler over the vicious. If my view of human nature is of a gentler creature, prone to harmony and capable of self-organization, I will favor a moderate or minimal government seeking to interfere as little as possible with humanity’s natural affections.

These are, of course, simplifications and the complex weave of anyone’s views of reality are not so easily untangled. They do, however, allow us to ask the question I would like, here, to begin answering. What politics flows from the metaphysical beliefs of Paganism and how does Capitalism stand in relation to this politics?

I don’t presume to speak for all pagans, it is a term that covers so expansive and fertile a ground that any generalization will be hazardous at best, but I do hope to offer some suggestive glimpses at the unique view of reality and politics that some aspects of paganism offer. I don’t claim my usage to be exclusive, but by paganism I will mean polytheism or the belief in a plurality of independent gods.

There is a fundamental difference between paganism and monotheism that is so simple and basic that it is frequently forgotten or overlooked. From a uniquely pagan perspective reality and truth are irreducibly plural. Monotheism in its many forms, on the other hand, asserts that reality is ultimately one and so too is truth. There is one god, one truth, often one creator and so one purpose, and ultimately one totalizing picture within which all being can be united, simplified and explained. It is hard to appreciate the incredible difference between this view, the historically later one, and the view of a reality that is never reducible to one final explanation, one rule or purpose, and one source or structure.

Paganism is the thinking or worship of the many and, after the rise of monotheism, the rejection of the reductive, totalizing one. Where there are many gods we find many purposes, if any, for existence and many ways in which one might exist well or poorly. A rather direct statement of this belief might be that there is no one right way to live and so, too, no one proper politics or collection of traditions. The politics of paganism, then, must be a politics of resistance to totalization, an assertion of the inherent value of the many ways of human life. For this reason, paganism must be committed to the complexity of all reality while casting a suspicious eye on simplifying reductions and explanations.

Conflict and its Preservation

Singer_Sargent,_John_-_Orestes_Pursued_by_the_Furies_-_1921
“Orestes Pursued by the Furies” 1921 by John Singer Sargent

The commitment to complex plurality is the reason that, oddly, pagan mythology is a story of conflict. For a pluralistic view of reality, conflict must be basic, whether it be the conflict of play or that of war. Any wholesale rejection of conflict can only be put forward by means of some one final totalizing view of how all people must behave and what values all people must share. The plurality of gods, and the traditions and practices of worship and value those gods teach, must embrace the productive inter-relations amongst these often dramatically different forces and truths whether those relations are friendly or more contentious.

We see a clear example of this in the story of Orestes in Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays, the Oresteia. We see here, as well, a political response to the conflict inherent within paganism that rejects any ultimate unification or simplification of reality’s complexity and pluralism.

In the final stage of the story, Orestes has killed his mother who had previously killed his father. Apollo, having inspired him to avenge his father in the first place, officially cleanses him of the crime of matricide. The Furies, an older order of gods sworn to a different set of values, refuse to accept Apollo’s judgment and instead insist that the crime of killing one’s mother must be punished and Orestes must pay with his sanity or, eventually, his life. There is no sense throughout the story that either the values of Apollo or those of the Furies are wrong. Both are legitimate and deeply enshrined in the complex power struggles of the Ancient Greek tradition. Neither the Furies nor Apollo are willing to back down nor, indeed, should either give up their basic commitments and view of the fundamental truths of reality. Violence, and ultimately a new war between the younger and older gods, threatens to break out due to the actions of a human son.

The solution to this inescapable conflict is found in Athens with its patron goddess. Apollo, Orestes and the Furies gather there before Athena and present their case for her judgment. But she, too, cannot achieve any final absolute judgment– for she is just as much a party to the issue as Apollo or the Furies. As a goddess herself, and the child of Zeus, her own values can not allow her to judge against Apollo, the rule of the father, and the younger gods. Her solution, then, is a political one. She gives up the absolute authority to judge the case even as Apollo and the Furies had given up their authority to her. Instead, she assembles a jury of human citizens and has the case presented to them. We see here the use of democracy to settle the problem of irreducible conflicts amidst truths, none of which can be rejected.

Council and Consensus

sankofa
Akan symbol for Sankofa, meaning “to go back and get it” best captured in the saying “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

There are a few points we should consider in response to Athenian democracy as a model of pagan politics. First, this can’t of course be the one and only model because the numerous Pagan Greek City States all had their own version of political organization– from military rule in Sparta, Tyrannies, Oligarchies, Aristocracies and Monarchies to the radical majoritarian Democracy of Athens. We will have something to say about this plurality of pagan political forms later. Second, democracy cannot be understood as a neutral position free of values from which the conflicting norms of the multiple gods can be judged. Rather, democracy can itself be understood as embodying the basic valuing of difference and pluralism. Without diversity in views of truth democracy is neither possible nor necessary. In our contemporary world democracy is often thought necessary because of an inability to come to agreement on certain unanswered questions or questions which have no answer. Thus, one can still assert that there is always one right answer but because we either don’t always know it or some people refuse to see it we turn to the compromise of democracy. In a pagan context, however, democracy is predicated on the rejection of any final reductive truth. Because reality is made up of many conflicting forces and truths the necessary political form is one that can embrace these conflicts without, at the same time, surrendering decision-making capabilities.

Third, and finally, we must recognize that the term democracy covers a variety of political formulations. Athenian democracy was direct, majoritarian and contained very few checks on the power of the majority. For example, the political majority could in many cases vote their representatives and generals to death. Modern American democracy is representative rather than direct, still majoritarian, but contains basic limitations on the power of the majority through the concept of rights. Other forms of democracy limit the majoritarian aspects of democracy by insisting on higher percentages of votes for a decision to be put into action, forcing representatives to form temporary coalitions out of their diverse interests, or set up proportional representation such that a party with twenty percent of the vote would hold twenty percent of the representatives in the legislative body. In a majoritarian system twenty percent simply represents a loss.

We see a nice counter model to the urban empire oriented majoritarian politics of Athens in some of the traditional pagan cultures found in Africa. The Akan culture traditionally governed itself through communal councils made up of the leaders of the community. Each council was presided over by a leader whose primary job was to moderate the discussion of the council and execute its decisions. For this reason Akan sayings capture such wisdom as “There are no bad leaders, only bad advisors”. Since the leader only acted on the decision of the council, any failure in action was a failure of the council.

This form of government, similar to many forms found in North American Native cultures, was democratic in the sense that the members of the council were representatives of the people and open to the judgment of the community should they fail in their representation. Perhaps most importantly, however, these councils were overtly non-majoritarian. The aim of the council was to arrive at consensus. The councils did not recognize majority will, but rather sought to bring any points of contention to a place where each side of the issue was willing to agree. The process of council was not complete until this agreement was reached. Despite this, however, the belief was not that consensus arrived at the one ultimate truth, but rather that it was the best means of bringing conflicting truths into harmony. For the Akan “One head does not go into council”, making clear that council itself requires a multiple of irreducibly different views, and “Wisdom does not reside in one head”, meaning that only a collection of these different non-totalizing grasps of reality allow for wisdom.

We might say, in this regard, that Akan communitarianism represents the idea that while there are many conflicting truths, wisdom consists in the ability to appreciate and see as many of these truths as possible without allowing any of them to dominate. While the ability to do this is limited in individuals, it is possible in a community of those seeking wisdom. There is no reduction or normalization of difference here, but rather an embrace of the productive play amongst difference. Only in difference is there truth.

Empire and Domination

Athena_Orestes_Erinyes
Orestes at trial with Apollo, Athena, and the Erinyes The Erinyes of Clytaemnestra pursue Orestes. Beside Athena, who presides the court, sits Apollo. Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912

We can find models, then, in pagan cultures for how their religion feeds into what my early representation of pagan metaphysics might expect us to see in politics.

However, there is a problem we need to face: not all pagan cultures gave rise to democratic or communitarian forms of government. Certainly these are the most common forms we find in traditional pagan cultures in Africa, Northern Europe and the Americas but history is replete with counter-examples. The Athenian empire, cherishing democracy for itself but frequently refusing it to its vassal states, is such a counter-example as is, perhaps most notably, the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire, like the Athenian, harbored democratic institutions within it for much of its history while showing the world a face of domination and absolutism, to of course say nothing of the internal failures of both democracies to offer real freedom to the majority of their peoples.

Part of the internal domination found in pagan cultures can be explained by a failure to adequately navigate the pluralism of their metaphysics and religion and the necessary conflicts arising from this pluralism. It is clearly an aspect of paganism for many to believe their own god or cultic practice to be superior to the others. It is clear that the conflict between Apollo and the Furies could have just as easily not been successfully navigated, giving rise to wars seeking supremacy or settling into the enslavement of one part of the community by others. This is one reason to rise from the religious perspective to the metaphysical, for the metaphysical allows us to see the contours of pagan culture irrespective of particular religious commitments while at the same time admitting the limited and fallible nature of our metaphysics in light of its own pluralistic commitments. Even this metaphysics will be just one amongst many, as it would itself predict.

The paradox we are attempting to address between a pluralistic metaphysics that fails to embody a pluralistic politics can be seen most clearly in the contrast between the exceptionally common cultural and religious tolerance of pagan cultures and their not infrequent political intolerance. Despite what you might expect, Athenian and Roman cultures were consistently open to cultural and religious variety. We could go even further and point out that they were almost greedy for new religious ideas. There are exceptions, of course, people were still put to death for impiety from time to time, but the appearance of new gods and new religious practices within both cultures was constant. We see similar elements throughout Greece, with many of the Greek gods originating from foreign cultures. Rome, while busy conquering the known world, did not impose its gods upon conquered people along side its political dominance and, instead, liked to bring new divinities and traditions to Rome to enrich its own cultural complexity. We can see this aspect of Roman culture most clearly if we consider it in contrast with the events following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity. Almost immediately the forces of monotheism resorted to rioting and the destruction of pagan temples and documents. Political suppression of paganism took a bit longer to be put in place, but it too soon followed and eventual gave rise to the goal of Catholic monoculture and the destruction off all other religious practices.

The pluralism we see in Rome and Athens is even more obvious when we look at the more recent interaction between Christian monotheism and traditional African cultures. The interaction between Africans and Christian missionaries and slavers played out the way it did at least partially because of the radically different way each side of the conflict treated the other. Most traditional African cultures had been prone, amongst themselves, to an open-minded curiosity about the beliefs and practices of their distant neighbors. As has been pointed out by numerous African philosophers and anthropologists, the attitude of most traditional African communities towards both their own gods and the gods of others, tended to be highly experimental and practically- minded. Gods were respected to the extent that they provided material benefits and wisdom. These gods, then, could be tested to see which worked better or worse for certain goals. When a god or religious practice repeatedly failed to deliver, when it no longer proved useful, it was frequently abandoned. The same thing went for the gods of foreign peoples. They were openly accepted as new proposals for useful ways to navigate the world. When they proved to not be useful they were rejected, though that did not mean those who still found them useful were in any way forced to “convert”.

We can see in the interaction of African communities with Christian missionaries a key example of the conflict between pagan and monotheist metaphysics. The conversation between missionaries and their prey is strikingly one-sided. The traditional Africans are curious about the newcomers and willing to discuss their views and debate the possible usefulness and plausibility of the new god they propose. The missionaries, on the other hand, do not accept that they have anything to learn or gain from the Africans and repeatedly insist that their own god is not just a god, but rather the One and Only God. This proposal is generally met with laughter by the Africans who found the very idea obviously ridiculous. The Africans are at a clear disadvantage for, while they are seeking to understand and expand their own wisdom, their interlocutors are seeking only to dominate, convert and destroy.

Within pagan cultures we frequently see similar conflicts between cultural openness and the drive for political domination and power without, nonetheless, the particularly pernicious metaphysical commitment to access to the One Truth. We might say, then, that within paganism, domination arises as a conflict amidst powers; while, within a monotheistic culture domination takes the form of a conflict amidst claims to truth. For Christian missionaries, someone was right and someone was wrong. For the Roman conqueror someone was strong and someone else was weak.

The failure that arises in the case of pagan domination of others, we might suggest, is a failure to see the extent to which a pagan metaphysics teaches that there is a plurality of types of power, all of which are important, useful and worthy of a type of respect because each derives from a different truth and reality. This clarifies the way in which pagan religion, and the metaphysics it contains, holds the potential for an open culture and politics while this potential has too often been only partially actualized. We might propose, then, that it has been left to us to more fully develop and achieve what previous cultures have frequently only imperfectly envisioned.

Paganism and Capitalism

janus
Roman coin featuring the God Janus

Communitarian or democratic views with a focus on the value and inescapable nature of robust difference are not the only existing proposal on the table for how to navigate the diversity of interests and values existing in a complex society. If pagan cultures seek to elevate difference to the point of its greatest creativity, capitalism exists as a way in which to reduce all values and views to a base line of control and comparison. In other words, capitalism can be seen as a way to navigate pluralism through the reduction of differences to the one totalizing value of money. The power of numbers and mathematics is that they provide a standard lens through which all things can be ordered. In natural science mathematics provides the basis for a totalizing theory of nature. In economics and especially capitalism mathematics is applied to all human interaction and belief. The dream of capitalism is that all things can be numbered and, in being so numbered, owned, bought, sold and ultimately controlled. Capitalism is, in its essential nature, dominating and leveling. It always reduces to one level of value and rejects any resistance to this leveling reduction, this totalizing.

Despite claims to the contrary, the market is not democratic because it is predicated upon the necessity that not all agents in the market share the same buying power or selling power. There must always be centers of control in every market: the wealthy and the less wealthy, the owners and the workers, etc. In reducing all ways of life to monetary exchange, and positing this exchange upon necessary inequality, capitalism opposes communitarian and democratic concerns. As we can see in the history of politics and economics, the move to capitalism was not a neutral or natural transition but rather the outcome of one force in society – the landed wealthy and/or business classes – attempting to defeat other forces and dominate the people as a whole. This is why, for example, hereditary aristocracies and capitalism were frequently historically in conflict as were military regimes and capitalism. What we witness is a war amongst the powerful for which segment of the population will rule.

Capitalism is, to put it bluntly, monotheist in its metaphysics and, whether directly or indirectly, must be opposed to the pagan assertion of inescapable differences irreducible to any one system of values. Pagan cultures have gods of commerce and religious practices to govern such human activities, but it was clear that these gods could never rule over all the others and that, in fact, commercial and monetary values were minor in comparison to a vast plethora of others. We can see this when we notice how, in comparison to our own prejudices, many pagan cultures had a much more limited conception of ownership especially over such things as land and natural resources. In some cultures, such as the African Akan culture and many Native American cultures, the words often taken to mean “ownership” mean rather something more like “trusteeship”. To own is rather to be entrusted with the responsibility of protecting and developing something for the sake of the community and the world as a whole. Even very personal goods were entrusted to one by the gods who had granted you with personal guardianship. The goal of your own well-being existed beside the much larger claims of the well-being of the full diversity of entities and truths.

Pagan Politics, an Outline

What, then, might be pagan politics and how does it relate to capitalism? I will draw here a few tentative principles from what I have said so far and am anxious to hear any suggestions, thoughts, objections or disagreements you might have. At the very least, I hope this will be part of a productive ongoing conversation.

A Pagan Metaphysics might Assert that:

1. Reality is irreducibly multiple, made up of numerous different forces. In other words, truth and reality are always plural.
2. Insofar as these truths are irreducible there is no one final truth or god and conflict (whether constructive or destructive, whether play or war) is an unavoidable aspect of reality.
3. There is no one right way to live, best culture, highest value or single purpose.
4. Wisdom consists in a gathering of diverse truths beyond that attainable by any one individual, “Wisdom does not reside in one head.”

A Pagan Politics might be Committed to:

1. The rejection of all totalizing claims and authorities.
2. The promotion of productive rather than negative conflict (play over war) and an increase in different ways of life.
3. The commitment to creating an environment where each way of life can reach its fullest most creative form as far as is possible, thus rejecting the Roman model of one type of power ruling over all others.
4. The insistence that no one standard of evaluation can be applied to all things.
5. The recognition that most things should not be characterized in terms of monetary value and so the resistance to the reduction of all values to market values.
6. In a World Without Council, i.e. one already under the domination of one reductive way of life, pagan politics would be committed to the pursuit of the actions necessary to make pluralism possible.


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 .


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