Monday, May 16, 2016

My Problem With Grimoire Purists and Strict Traditionalists

"My wand is better than your wand!"

There seems to be a never ending argument between those who espouse the literal adaptation of Grimoires as they currently exist and those who follow a path of eclecticism, experimentation and creative adaptation. Neither point of view has any kind of absolute correctness or truth about it, because in many ways both approaches have their own virtues and failings. What bothers me about those who are strict followers of tradition and who declare that the old grimoires are the only pure source of magical lore is their smug certainty and absolutism. If someone wants to use the methodologies and tools as they are depicted in one or several of the old grimoires then that is wholly their own choice and personal obligation. If they honor a particular traditional path through their unstinting adherence to every detail and nuance then that is clearly their chosen path, and I say more power to them. However, the moment someone says that their path is the only legitimate way to practice ceremonial or ritual magick then they have completely lost me.

I have written about this issue in previous articles where I have discussed what I consider to be the actual issues facing anyone who wants to use one of the old grimoires. I have also talked about the obvious fracture in the community between those who are engaging in a creative adaptation against those who advocate a strict adherence to the old traditions. You can find those articles here and here.

The real issue here is whether the magic that one practices actually makes a difference in the life the magician. The core question is whether the magician is competent at working magic and that he or she can produce tangible and verifiable results through their magic. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter if one is using a grimoire in an exacting and precise manner. It doesn’t matter that his or her magical tools are perfectly fashioned according to the dictates of the tradition or that the rites and liturgy employed are accurate and valid. What is important is whether the methods and tools employed by the magician are executed with the magician’s full intention, realization, and personal empowerment; that they ultimately produce the intended results.

What I have found in over 40 years of working magic and sharing lore with many magicians is that magic is a very individualized phenomenon. That magicians can employ many tools and techniques whether from traditional sources or modern inventions and still get the same comparable results. Whether the wand was made out of alchemical gold engraved with rare arcane symbols and glyphs or it was just an unusual stick found in the woods, the magic generated doesn’t seem to vary much. Esthetics are a good mechanism for refining tools and techniques, but still, a competent magician makes do with whatever he or she can afford to buy or make themselves. Just to make certain that my point is completely understood by everyone, esthetics, by itself, doesn’t produce better magic. There is no point in arguing how much better your wand is than someone else's, not to mention that it sounds a bit like grotesque posturing.

One of the more popular tropes going around these days is the grimoire-only purist or traditionalist approach to performing forms of spirit invocation and evocation. The argument goes something like that the magicians of the previous age knew what they were doing and the grimoires that they wrote represent a true tradition of magic, and that now, after centuries of neglect and omission, we should pick up what they unwittingly passed down to us and use that above all other methodologies or techniques to work magic. In fact, it has been implied that we would be better served if we tossed out all of the current magical lore collected over the last hundred years or so and started fresh with one of the more older grimoires.

It is believed by these pundits that the older grimoires represented a purer time when magic wasn’t so encumbered by the corruption and fallacies of our modern times. In fact, I have heard it said that the better magician is one who didn’t bother to learn any of the modern systems of magic. They say, start with one of the old grimoires and master it over time, and only then you will be guaranteed to be competent, powerful and masterful in all things. Well, that is the ideal, but in my humble opinion it falls quite short of producing the awesome results that some have said it would. Why is that? Is there something more to mastering magic than just mastering one of the old grimoires?

That is an important question, in my opinion. If you follow the supposed traditional lore, how could you possibly go wrong? Well, I believe that you would be missing quite a bit, since the culture and mind-set that produced that grimoire has long since vanished from our world. We can attempt to approximate that culture and mind-set, but then we are entering into the debatable world of reconstructionism instead of actually attempting to learn how to work magic in this current time and age. That is a problem, but it is only one of many problems.

The grimoires available to us today are translations from original manuscripts or in some cases, rare published documents. The manuscripts can include additional or appropriated materials not part of the archetypal original, and some of early published books are sometimes distillations of several manuscripts. The fact is that there wasn’t one definitive version of a grimoire. There were hundreds of variations of a specific titled grimoire, and many of these variations didn’t survive to the current age. What we have today is only a small fraction of the actual grimoires that were available to savants in the 16th and 17th centuries. We know this is true because the notables who collected books and had their own libraries often employed someone to compile lists of the books that they possessed, and these lists varied over time. From these lists of books library historians today have been able to determine that over one third of the books owned by notables in that time had something to do with the occult. (A smaller number were hard-core grimoires.)

So today, we have only a small portion of that written expertise, and from that small fraction of lore we are supposedly capable of reconstructing a culture and world-view that has been gone for over five centuries? It is hard enough to derive meaning and significance from occult books written in the 19th century. Attempting to do this with books written in academic Latin from the 16th century would be a daunting challenge. I know that I am not skilled enough to do this, and I doubt that most magical practitioners are either. A few of us might have this skill, but in the end, I think that it won’t make up for all of the missing cultural beliefs and the mind-set of the time. That, I believe, is lost to us forever, and it is one of the more important keys to being able to reconstruct the grimoire tradition from the previous age.

If reconstruction to that degree of viability isn’t possible then what is? It doesn’t matter what you do to learn how to practice magic nor does it matter what tradition or technique you use; you will have to spend a considerable amount of time developing, practicing and experimenting. It doesn’t matter how much material, knowledge, expertise you or your mentors might possess. In the end it is simply and clearly necessary for you to practice and experiment, and to do this intensively and consistently for a period of several years. Over time you will discover what works for you and what doesn’t work. You will discard things that are unworkable or clearly wrong and you will pick up ideas from your own experimentation or from books or other magicians. Your early years will be frustrating and you will likely experience many more failures than successes. Clearly, whatever intentions or ideals that you brought into this enterprise will change over time, and it is more likely that they will change quite a lot. When you finally build up a competent practice of magic, you might not even recognize the lore that you started out with.

What I am saying is that in order to master any system of magic you have to first learn how to practice it. Another important point is that each magician is tasked with developing a magical system that works for them, and this is, as I have said, an evolving process. I believe that we, as magicians, are tasked with making our magic relevant, workable and effective in this post-modern world that we live. We learn, we adapt and we evolve our own system of magic, even if we are engaged in a traditional path, or we are learning experientially by the seat of our pants. This is a process that has been a part of the regimen of learning and mastering the art of magic for a long time, and it has probably been that way since the very beginning or origin of magic itself.  

Therefore, with these important points in mind, it does seem foolish for someone to claim that all magicians must practice their magic using a specific approach or by adopting a methodology that was used in the previous age. What is important is engaging in a system of magic that works and is relevant to our current epoch. We can’t go back in time to try to determine how people thought, believed and practiced their magic back in the 16th century, so we might as well admit that our modern approach is to adapt, evolve and develop something that is actually new and different than what has been practiced in the past. I think that admitting this common approach to all forms of magical mastery is not only important, but it is also honest and inclusive. There are no absolute rules associated with a competent practice of magic and I think that chaos magicians have shown this to be abundantly clear.

That being said, if someone seeks to use one of the old grimoires then there will be some substitutions and adaptations that one will need to make in order to successfully perform the operations listed in it. Of course, this is where one’s own particular spiritual perspective comes into play. If you are a Christian then you will can take the prayers and the spiritual hierarchy found in the grimoires at face value. I do think that Christians who evoke demons and deal directly with the various Infernal Princes and Chiefs is likely compromising their faith, but that’s just my opinion. I am not a Christian nor a monotheist. Thus I wouldn’t approach any of these entities in the same supposedly hostile manner that adherents of the Abrahamic faith would have to in order to maintain their religious integrity. Giving offerings and making deals with various spirits is a necessary part of the magic that I do when fully engaged with the Spirit Model of magic.

However, I don’t have much spiritual affinity with Satan, the Devil, or any of the other many names that this entity has been labeled over the millennia. My religion doesn’t have an dualistic archenemy who must ultimately be vanquished, so I don’t believe in the Devil. I also don’t think that the name Lucifer signifies what either present day Christians and/or grimoire traditionalists believe that it signifies. As a Witch, I have reserved the name Lucifer to be understood using the actual Latin translation of “Light Bearer” and therefore would consider it to be an alternative name for the Sun God. When I encounter the name Lucifer or Lucifuge Rofocal in a grimoire, I am not convinced that the entity's name is synonymous with Satan. I also think that the name Beelzebub sounds kind of silly and I would have a hard time trying to summon that entity without laughing out loud, but I digress from my topic.

When it comes down to the names of the Infernal Princes, I find that these entities are more silly and childishly bugaboo than dark, evil, scary and awesome spiritual intelligences. Many would disagree with me on that particular point, and it is after all, just my opinion. Still, if these entities represent the kind of spirits that you want to engage then that is your business and it is none of my business. Just don’t tell me that what I am doing is not being true to the magic of the grimoires, or spirit magic writ large, if I happen to pass up dealing with those entities. If that is the basis to your magic then so be it. You can treat them like demigods or as hostile and evil intelligences, but it will not affect me nor what I do. We can just agree to not agree and move on with our collective work.  

One point that I will make about engaging with these entities as they were depicted and perceived in the 16th and 17th centuries and written about in the various contemporary black magic grimoires is that they seem to perpetuate and glorify what I believe to be the ignorance and superstitions of those times. To push this theme forward and to lionize it as an important part of the work with old grimoires is, in my opinion, perpetuating the vices and blindness of the previous age. I believe that what we should be doing is basing our work on a foundation of modern thinking and scholarship. We should not promote the superstitions and absurd notions of a previous age, however legitimate they might contextually seem to be. I think that those who have taken this approach would be better served if they instead questioned what is authentic and real in these books regarding our present post-modern world.

Once you have to actually work magic and engage with the spirits found in the old grimoires then you end up being schooled on what is real vs. what is legitimate. This is one of the many ongoing battles between pragmatic and creative practitioners of the magic and those who seem to have a more scholarly and reconstructive bent, but I think that there really isn’t any battle since both methods appear to produce useful and workable systems of magic. The difference is that no system of magic performed today by magicians is like what was practiced in the previous age.

Thus I feel that the snobbery of traditionalist, grimoire-only practitioners and purists is completely unwarranted and exaggerated. Their swagger and smugness is only a pretentious and shallow act hiding their obvious insecurity and likely incompetence. Let us not give them any more credence than what they actually deserve, which is none.

Frater Barrabbas