“The occult”, and its corresponding study, “occultism” or “the occult sciences”, are designations whose meaning is typically far from clear. More or less equivalently, one often hears talk of “the esoteric” and “esotericism”. While there are clear historical lines of development, traced for example by Antoine Faivre (see his Access to Western Esotericism), it is often the case that these more scholarly presentations privelege a certain external understanding of the disciplines and their subject matter, or, also quite commonly, a certain tradition or certain time period’s definition at the exclusion of any others. Regardless, we shall try to explore some general features, whatever the academically problematic nature may be.
“Occult” means “hidden”, but the nature of what is hidden, as well as that of the hiding itself, are rather opaque. The usual way to interpret this is that occult knowledge is for the elite, that it is somehow unfit for the eyes of the unworthy. The secrets of magickal orders are frequently guarded for this purpose. However, it seems more likely that the secrets will remain secret to those not ready for them, even if those unworthy people confront them head-on in a text or try to implement them in practice. This is because the secrets are layers of interpretation; occult “secrets” need not be hidden to keep them from the unwashed masses. But this is not to be interpreted as a kind of egalitarian statement of itself; it is still true that there must be some sort of levels of initiation (or initiations in different things), though even this is likely up for debate. In any case, it is not always a matter of hierarchy.
Occult knowledge is knowledge that is hidden, a state that is sometimes called “subtle”, in contrast to the “coarse” knowledge of the natural sciences. Occult knowledge is subtle because it does not correspond to directly tangible, universally-organized scientific reality. To apprehend occult forces is itself a subtle feat, one that cannot necessarily be replicated in scientific conditions, which work to reduce or even entirely eliminate the influence of teleologies, “subjective” influences, and particularities, all hallmarks of the occult. The relationship of the hard or natural sciences to the occult is one that is fraught with technical difficulties, but I hope to return to it in a later presentation. This presentation, then, will deal primarily with the occult in general – what it is, its history and various traditions, and a brief thought about why it works (because it really does work!).
A preliminary note: To understand the occult, we must take what I will call an “internal” view of the matter. This means we must look at it from the perspective of a believer, one involved in it as a way of life. If we look at occult phenomena and practices merely from the perspective of a skeptical observer, I can tell you right now that it will not work. What you put in is typically what you get out, though magnified to some degree. It might be said that occultism is the science of belief, using belief to do psychological work; this in turn requires symbols, gestures, and all the trappings of ceremonial magick. But this is just a psychologistic interpretation of the occult, though by no means is it illegitimate. As is frequently said, the neophyte typically begins with a psychologistic, skeptical position on the occult, but as they amass more and more successes and experience more and more unexplainable phenomena, they typically become more direct believers.
In any case, it will not do to look at an occult text “from the outside”. In that case, one completely misses the point, since occultism is, as I have said, about belief, about willpower. If you do not will, you cannot understand what is meant by the various occult theses you will come upon. Occultism is unabashedly perspectival, it is not universal as is science or most other forms of discourse. It is not based primarily upon rhetorical commonalities, emotional connections, or logical deductions, and hence is not generically intelligible. Another example: having a vision can be explained scientifically by looking at certain neural firings in the brain, and so on, but this in no way even touches on the significance of the experience “from the inside”. The inside perspective is that of the occult practitioner, and it is futile to refute this from without.
II. A Brief History of Occultism
In this part of the presentation, I will not go over the entirety of the occult’s history, which is undoubtedly as long as that of humankind, stretching from prehistoric shamanism (insofar as that word can account for a long-lasting and wide variety of phenomena) to contemporary expressions of postmodern chaos magic. Instead, I will focus on a few broad traditions: Hermeticism, Enochian Magic, The Golden Dawn, Thelema, Temple of Set, Chaos Magick, and Witchcraft.
Hermeticism is one of the oldest extant forms of magick of which we have a rather good record (the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri are a good source, as well as the so-called Curse Tablets). This kind of magick started in Greece and Egypt, and was a product of several “streams” or influences: Gnosticism, Hebrew theology, Egyptian magick, and Greek magick, combined into a novel form. Hermetic magick is the single greatest influence on all magick that came after it, and there are many sorts of magick that are called “hermetic” which deviate significantly from the sort of sorcery found in the Magical Papyri.
Hermetic magick is named after Hermes (the Roman Mercury), who was equated by the magicians with the Egyptian neter (God-principle) Thoth, the god of magic and science. Typical hermetic spells were things like love spells, spells to vanquish enemies, and spells for protection from baleful spirits or forces. Casting these spells typically involved elaborate ingredients (such as “the blood of a black ass” and various rare compounded plant materials), words of power (voces magicae), and various ceremonial gestures. There were also so-called “high magick” practices (magick used for initiation or for achieving some kind of divinity), as opposed to these practical “low magick” (aka “sorcery”) operations. High magick, though, would in general not become the primary form of magick until perhaps the Renaissance.
Magick was at this point a kind of outsider art, but was practiced by the learned. Hermetic magick did not discriminate based upon culture or pantheon, itself being born from a novel mixture. Greek gods were invoked side-by-side with their Egyptian counterparts, and often gods were identified with one another more or less wholesale.
Hermeticism’s primary tenets can be found in the Corpus Hermeticum; in particular I recommend everyone read The Poimander. Later, hermeticism’s principles, which include polarity, the various spiritual worlds, and the doctrine of the elements, would develop into ceremonial magick as we know it today, including into the eclectic and in spirit thoroughly hermetic works of Franz Bardon, even exerting and enormous influence on the grimoire tradition of the middle ages and the Renaissance. A great contemporary introduction to hermeticism, in its more modern and theoretical or “high magick” form, is The Kybalion by The Three Initiates. If you are still unsure as to what hermeticism is after this meeting, I would recommend you read The Kybalion. Another good reading, more thoroughly historical, and containing translations of the magical papyri, is Stephen Flowers’s Hermetic Magic.
II.B. Enochian Magic
Enochian magic was transmitted to Dr. John Dee and his seer, Sir Edward Kelley, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Kelley would gaze into a crystal ball while Dee performed ceremonial gestures, chants, prayers, and so on. In the crystal, Kelley perceived angels who gave him a language, Enochian, the “language of the angels”, as well as various invocations or “keys”, containing according to one theory the power to, if successfully performed, open the watchtowers at the edge of the universe and let in the forces of chaos (the demon Choronzon), effectively ushering in the apocalypse.
The angels told Dee and Kelley all kinds of very disturbing things, urging them to share their wives in common, to endanger themselves by denouncing Emperor Rudolf and admonishing him to follow the angels’ teachings, and to cast aside morality. Kelley asked an angel why they were telling them to commit so many sins, and the angel replied, “What is sin?”, after which the two men attempted an explanation, to no avail.
Enochian magick is extremely powerful (I have very little experience with it). The works of Aaron Leitch are supposed to be very good for anyone who is interested. Aside from being so powerful, the story of Dee and Kelley is worth looking into in much greater detail than I can provide here.
II.C. The Golden Dawn
Undoubtedly the most prominent magickal order of modern times is the Golden Dawn, active primarily from the end of the 19th century through the first few years of the 20th. The Golden Dawn was headed primarily by S.L. Macgregor Mathers, who found a secret “cipher” manuscript written by a German adept and containing the authority to set up a new magickal order in England. Mathers decoded the cipher and wrote to the adept, who, by her authority derived from the “Secret Chiefs”, gave the go-ahead to Mathers.
Why did Mathers need such authority? At the time, it was a common occult assumption that there was a secret society of world-historical proportions that had been guarding ancient secrets for millenia; the society is sometimes termed the “Great White Brotherhood” or the “White Lodge”, the members thereof being termed the “Secret Chiefs”, transcendent masters who were working behind the scenes to guide humanity to spiritual evolution. This is, then, a rather concretized version of the so-called perennial philosophy.
In any casy, the Golden Dawn quickly became a potent force in the occult world. Two of its most famous members are Aleister Crowley (greatest magician of the age) and W.B. Yeats (the poet). The Golden Dawn combined qabalah (the Hebrew “Tree of Life”, a kind of meta-mythological emanationist philosophy/theology, dealt with more below), tarot, Enochian magic (as noted above), hermetic magick (including especially elemental magick), and so on. The Golden Dawn had an elaborate grade structure based upon the spheres of the Tree of Life. The Golden Dawn system of magick is very white-light, very pious and holy, its primary instruments of practice being based strongly on Judeo-christian mythology interspersed with Greek and Egyptian paganism. In any case, a crisis precipitated the demise of the Golden Dawn, though several spiritual successors and supposedly legitimate offshoots now exist.
The classic work on the Golden Dawn is simply titled The Golden Dawn, collected or “revealed” by Israel Regardie, Crowley’s one-time secretary. A better introductory work is undoubtedly Peregrin Wildoaks’ By Names and Images: Bringing the Golden Dawn to Life.
After Crowley left (or was kicked out of) the Golden Dawn, he eventually formed his own occult philosophy called “Thelema”. While in Cairo on a honeymoon with his wife Rose Kelly, Crowley received a text called The Book of the Law. It happened something like this.
Rose became despondent and began going into trance states, though she knew nothing of magick nor mysticism. She started saying strange occult things to Crowley, who thought she was just trying to trick him. She said she was the messenger of Horus, so Crowley took her to the museum in Cairo and asked her to point out Horus to him, thinking to expose her game. She walked straight to the Stele of Revealing, numbered in the museum as exhibit 666, and pointed to Ra-hoor-khuit, a composite god made from Ra and Horus. Crowley was astounded. She then began to give him ritual instructions for the invocation of Horus. Crowley, now believing her to be the messenger of that god, took her back to their living quarters and did as she said. On three successive days, March 20-22, from noon until 1pm, a figure appeared in their temple (a room in their apartment) and dictated to Crowley three chapters that would become The Book of the Law.
The first chapter is the perspective of Nuit, the Egyptian star-goddess, goddess of the night sky, a circle of infinite circumference. Nuit is a goddess of love, representing, among other things, the macrocosm, the universe, and non-duality. The second chapter is the perspective of Hadit, whose name is a mistranslation/mistake, but who is represented as a kind of winged disk on the Stele of Revealing. Hadit is the infinitesimal point within, the highest contraction of the soul, the serpent who raises his head to unite with Nuit in bliss. Finally, the third chapter is the perspective of Ra-hoor-khuit, in other words Horus. This chapter is incredibly brutal, prophesying and even advocating violence and brutality. In this chapter, Horus is the crowned and conquering child ushering in the New Aeon.
The Book of the Law indicated that Crowley was the prophet of the New Aeon, the Aeon of Horus. This aeon succeeded the previous Aeon of Osiris, which in turn succeeded the Aeon of Isis (the characteristics of those gods supposedly having some bearing on the general constitution of the age). The Aeon of Horus was supposed to be one of force and fire, brutality, war, but also freedom. In the Aeon of Osiris, the cult of the dying god ruled; it was an aeon of restriction and suffering, represented by solar gods such as Osiris (and also Jesus Christ). In the Aeon of Osiris, the sun going down at night represented death, and the dawn the rebirth to new life. The Aeon of Horus, by contrast, is supposed to be stellar rather than solar, and to represent the insight that the sun does not die, but is constantly burning. It is a very Nietzschean sort of aeon, one of freedom, of will, and of love.
Crowley’s system can be summed up in two doctrines: “Do what thou wilt shall be the Whole of the Law” and “Love is the Law, Love under Will”. The goal of Thelemic magick is to achieve “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel”, in other words to find your True Will, and then to do it. Crowley, it would seem, mixed the “high magick” and eclectic approach of the Golden Dawn with genuinely blasphemous heterodoxy and a kind of emancipatory focus on will and freedom.
One can read many of Crowley’s own texts for more information. In particular, I recommend Gems From the Equinox and Magick: Liber ABA, Book IV. Everyone should read Liber AL vel Legis: The Book of the Law!
II.E. The Temple of Set
The Temple of Set was born from the ashes of the Church of Satan. The Temple of Set, however, is also a kind of successor to Crowley. The focus of the Temple is “Left-Hand path” occultism, in other words instead of seeking union with God, it seeks the deification of the individual, a kind of full realization rather than an annihilation of the ego. It too seeks a kind of “True Will”, but it tempers the libertinism advocated by Crowley with its deep concern for autonomy and the integrity of the self and the will.
The Temple of Set advocates for a split between the “Subjective Universe” and the “Objective Universe”, in other words something rather similar to my own thoughts about the “interior” and “exterior” perspectives, this time applied to individual human beings. One should work to strengthen and control completely one’s Subjective Universe, though magick can also influence the Objective Universe from time to time. The Temple, therefore, has an eclectic and non-dogmatic approach to magickal systems, though always with the above focus.
The best readings on the Temple are probably as follows: Uncle Setnakt’s Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path by Don Webb, and The Seven Faces of Darkness also by Don Webb (for a more immediate and Hermetic approach). Michael Aquino’s The Temple of Set is a good account of the doctrines and history of the Temple.
II.F. Chaos Magick
Chaos magick is basically postmodern magick that eschews any kind of systematization. It is radically individualist, believing that one should use what works and discard the rest, with “what works” being irreducibly individual. Beyond that, there is not too much to say about “chaotes”, as they are often called. Chaos magick is usually non-symbolic or personally symbolic, breaking rituals down to their simplest psychological components.
Good introductions to chaos magick include: Peter Carroll’s Liber Null and Psychonaut, Stephen Mace’s Stealing the Fire From Heaven, and most stuff by Robert Anton Wilson.
Generally speaking, there are two primary forms of witchcraft around today: “wicca” and “traditional witchcraft”.
Wicca was consolidated (or invented, depending on who you ask) by Gerald Gardner in the 20th century. Wicca is primarily a form of New Age moon goddess-worship. It does utilize magic, but is not really part of the usual “occult” trajectory, being more a religion than an occult system. Therefore I will not really deal with it here.
“Traditional witchcraft” is the name given to non-wiccan pagan witchcraft. It is typically still based on the myths and folklore of the British Isles, though it is far “darker” in tone than wicca. Some forms of traditional witchcraft are almost full-on Luciferianism, worshiping entities described in apocryphal biblical texts (like Azazel and the “Watchers” from the Book of Enoch) right alongside the Horned God and Earth Goddess types. The most esoteric and by far the most interesting form of traditional witchcraft is the Cultus Sabbati, formed and developed by Andrew Chumbley (who, if he had not died young, would certainly have been the next Aleister Crowley!). He wrote Azoetia and The Dragon Book of Essex, mixing Sufism, traditional pagan witchcraft, Crowley-type stuff, and an emormous dose of Alpha Draconis-based dark spirituality.
A good introduction to traditional witchcraft is lacking, but I would probably recommend starting with Robin Artisson’s The Witching Way of Hollow Hill.
III. Occult Techniques & Theory
Now that we have a basic grasp on the history and contemporary traditions of occultism, we can take a brief look at the actual workings of occultism, though in this area things get a lot more subtle, and a lot more tentative.
III.A. Myths & Symbols
Myths and symbols are a huge part of occultism. Occult practice functions primarily through symbol. Occult knowledge, it is sometimes said, can only be transmitted in the form of symbol. Why is this? It is because the imagination, particularly the symbolic imagination, has a privileged position with regard to the Soul or Spirit (depending on what vocabulary one uses, these words switch meanings). The Spirit as the higher (or even highest) faculty of the human being cannot be interacted with on the discursive level. In order to interact with it, we must use symbol. The direct apprehension of the subtler aspects of reality, therefore, must be transmitted via symbol. If we “translate” the occult symbol into words, it loses this ability and typically becomes a rather ridiculous sort of thesis. Often, when trying to explain to people occult truths, both me and the listener end up saying “what? That’s it??”
Myths, furthermore, are just moving symbols, strings of symbols put together to create (or rather express) more in-depth occult truths.
The qabalah is more or less the universal master key of the practice of magick. Crowley explained that the Tree of Life was a “filing cabinet” in which to place whatever element of reality. The Tree of Life is more or less an enormous set of correspondences, a meta-mythology. Osiris, for example, can be placed into sphere 6 of the Tree of Life, Tiphareth. Odin can be placed, in his aspect as King of the Gods, in the fourth sphere, Chesed; in his role as initiator and god of magick, he can be placed in sphere 8, Hod. So you see the flexibility of the qabalah as a meta-mythological filing cabinet.
Aside from this aspect, the qabalah has a definite philosophy associated with it, derived from Jewish mysticism (the spelling often differentiates the Jewish Kabbalah, Christian Cabbalah, and hermetic Qabalah). It is a philosophy of emanation wherein God manifested himself in 10 different aspects or “Sephiroth”, and in a definite order. At the top are the three “veils of negative existence”, the AIN SOPH AUR (the limitless light), AIN SOPH (the limitless), and AIN (nothingness). After this, God manifested as a pure point, Kether, the Crown. From here, God emanated into Chokmah, or Wisdom. Chokmah is pure force, also associated with the Father. Wisdom then gave birth to Binah, Understanding, the Mother, pure form. Next comes the Abyss, which separates the top three, the “Supernal Triad”, from the other seven spheres. The Abyss has great significance for initiation, as it separates divine consciousness from the ego.
After the Abyss comes a strange thing: a non-sephirah, a sphere that is not one: Daath, Knowledge. In the Fall from the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate from the “Tree of Knowledge”, they ate of Daath. As the 11th Sephirah, Daath is hidden, and is often described by Jewish kabbalists as “the false sephirah”. Its mysteries are deep, and we cannot plumb them here, but suffice it to say that the Fall of Man resulted in the death of Daath and the creation of the Abyss between the Supernal Triad and the lower sephiroth. There is a reason the Tree of Life is not perfectly symmetrical now, though it once was.
The first sephirah below the Abyss is Chesed, Mercy. It is after Chesed that the right-hand pillar on the Tree of Life is named “The Pillar of Mercy”. After Chesed comes Geburah, “Severity”, naming in like manner the “Pillar of Severity”. After Geburah comes what is basically the center of the Tree, in the Pillar of Mildness, Tiphareth, or Beauty. Tiphareth is the Sun, the higher consciousness, harmony, and so on. Attaining Tiphareth is attaining Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. After Tiphareth comes Netzach, Splendor, corresponding to Venus, inspiration, art, and so on. After Netzach is Hod, the analytical intellect, Mercury, intelligence, and magick. Then comes Yesod, the “Foundation” (of the manifest world), corresponding to the Moon (on the middle pillar below Tiphareth, the Sun), dreams, and so on. Finally, there is Malkuth, the Kingdom, representing the Earth and the manifest universe as we know it. It is in Malkuth where we begin our quest.
Finally, there are said to be 4 “worlds” in qabalistic philosophy: Assiah (the material), Yetzirah (the astral), Briah (the mental or creative), and Atziluth (the archetypal or causal). Assiah is self-explanatory, corresponding to Malkuth. Yetzirah corresponds to Yesod up through Chesed, and is roughly equivalent to the imaginal world of image; almost all magick works through the astral world. Briah’s associations vary, but usually it corresponds to Binah and Chokmah. It is kind of like Plato’s world of Ideas, but more mystical. Finally, Atziluth corresponds to Kether and is almost completely beyond human understanding.
There is an enormous amount of information out there on the qabalah. The Golden Dawns’ grades are based on the spheres on the Tree of Life.
III.C. Ceremonial Magick
The practice of ceremonial magick is usually based on the qabalah. But even if it is not, it usually functions by two primary magickal means: names and images.
Holy names or words, voces magicae, are in a ritual setting inseparable from the concept which they are supposed to “signify”. Words thus have a very different function in a ritual, being not mere significations, but active doings. They activate Mental (Briatic) powers. These words are to be vibrated rather than just spoken – that means they should be projected loudly and slowly, using muscles in the chest and throat to increase resonance. They should sound almost like Tibetan throat singing if done correctly (this is hard, I admit).
Images, in the context of ceremonial magick, invoke aspects or forces in the astral world. Images are particularly signaled by color; color imagination is very important in Golden Dawn style magick in particular. An image of a spirit or angel, for example, is supposed to actually take on the powers and significance of that angel itself, and should really be inseparable from that of which it is the image. One way to think about it might be this: we create an image of a spirit we wish to interact with, making it as lifelike as possible, including the correct colors. Then with a magick word we breathe it into life (the Briatic world is also called the “creative” world). This is how we invoke or interact with, for example, the archangels in the typical Golden Dawn rituals for banishing or invoking.
Speaking of which, there are two general forms of Golden Dawn magick: banishing and invoking. Banishing works just like it sounds, getting rid of unwanted influences in the spiritual or even material realm. Banishing is best done before moving on to other more delicate procedures. Invoking rituals, on the other hand, summon a specific power to inhabit the body of the magician or the temple in general. Dramatic invocation is a particularly potent form of invocation, where a particular god is called to inhabit the magician’s body and mind; this is different from spirit possession (also called “mediumistic possession”) because the magician does not lose control over their body or mind, but are rather filled with divine consciousness and presence of the specified type.
A typical ceremonial magickal working might include the following: first a banishing ritual to clear the air and create an aura of sanctity; then a preliminary invoking ritual or rituals of some kind; then the steps of a dramatic invocation, such as reading hymns to the chosen god or so on; then, if necessary, another banishing ritual to once more clear the air. Of course, not all workings are straightforward invocations of a single god.
Much ceremonial magick works through associations, and invocation particularly so. For example, the east is associated with the archangel Raphael, the season of Spring, dawn, the element air, the color yellow, the divine name YHVH, and so on. Stringing together associations can produce a rapid accumulation of surplus meaning or sense, which can then be put to use in magickal activity, which activity can then itself be thought of as a kind of interpretation (one that transcends mundane reality, of course).
Or again: in an invocation of the god Aries, I might proceed as follows. I adorn my altar with the color red, placing an iron rod in a central location. A picture of Aries hangs from the wall. It is warm in the room, and there is as much fire as I can safely produce. Atu XVI, The Tower, is displayed prominently. A martial song is playing in the background. And so on. The goal is to make the mind oversaturated with the imagery of the desired deity. The fact of association is more important than the “objectivity” of the association. That is, even if we think that no association is in itself necessary, we might consider (in a structuralist way) the chain of these signifiers as differing from other chains to be what is important. Tables of associations are easily obtainable online, but one must really actively associate the elements strongly in one’s mind for such an invocation to work.
Divination is not merely the predicting of the future, as if the divination itself were external to the matter. Through divination, we can influence the outcome, or come to understand it better, and not merely register it as an inevitability. Tarot is probably the most fleshed-out and flexible system of divination, though runic divination and the I Ching are also effective.
Divination cannot be explained by scientific principles, because science deals with universalities, in this case specifically probabilities. But when we draw a card in a tarot reading, we are not drawing a probability, we are drawing this card, and even if explained “you had a 1/78 chance of drawing that card”, the irreducible specificity of this card does not even enter into the equation (and indeed, it cannot on principle).
The best divination is done for oneself, where you draw the cards and, through long association and connection with outcomes of real events, you immediately know what the cards mean. In other words, you use your subconscious immediate reaction to understand your own hidden associations with the relevant cards. This is at least a good psychologistic interpretation of the powers of tarot divination.
Much of occultism is based on number. The qabalah is the most obvious example, each sephirah corresponding to a number and the qualities associated with that number. Pythagorean number mysticism is another example.
Numerology, in particular qabalistic “gematria”, is an easy way to build associations. Each letter (in Hebrew, Greek, or English) is given a value. Each word is the sum of the values of the individual letters. Large resulting sums can furthermore be broken down into single-digit numbers by taking the “cross sum”, that is, adding together each digit. This can be repeated as necessary. For example: the sephira “Geburah” is, in Hebrew, “GBRVH”, that is, 3 + 2 + 6 + 200 + 5 = 216. Furthermore, the cross sum of 216 is 2 + 1 + 6 = 9. We can look up the associations of the number 216: wine, a man, fear, cleanness, profound. Or, less significantly, for 9: to be strong, powerful one, brother, to despise, to heat. This will supposedly give us some insight in to the nature of Geburah. It is easy to get carried away with gematria; take it with a grain of salt.
Another interesting thing to consider is the numerical nature of conceptual relations. We can, for instance, think of the four elements as the conceptual apparatus corresponding to the number 4. Lacan said somewhere that the number of concepts already tells us a lot about what the possible meanings and relations of those concepts could be. Two concepts is obviously a duality of some kind, while if there is a third it offsets or transcends that duality. Four concepts is a stable set of axes, while five offsets the two axes in some manner. Hence we find the number 4 to signify stability, while the number 5 signifies strife or discord. I think this would be an interesting path to pursue.
Astrology has a poor reputation because it often bleeds into semi- or pseudo-scientific claims (depending on who you ask). Astrology is in general the study of the influence of the heavenly bodies, i.e. the seven classical planets and the zodiac, on the life and activity of humanity and the cosmos as a whole.
The most important astrological facts for each of us, based on the day and hour of our birth, are: sun sign, moon sign, and “ascendant” sign. The sun sign will be the most prominent and important sign, with the moon sign second, and the ascendant third. One can consult the internet for specifics, but again, take it with a grain of salt, especially because a complete birth chart will give a very different picture than a mere sun sign. For example, it is not only the individual signs itself (and there is a sign for each of your planets, as well as other designations like “ascendant”), but also important is the relationships, that is, the angles between any two planets, which can form trines, semitrines, and so on, which each have different meanings for your life.
It should also be noted that each sign is either cardinal, fixed, or mutable; each sign also has an element and a planetary ruler. The signs’ designations are as follows:
Aries – Cardinal – Fire – Mars
Leo – Fixed – Fire – Sun
Sagittarius – Mutable – Fire – Jupiter
Cancer – Cardinal – Water – Moon
Scorpio – Fixed – Water – Mars
Pisces – Mutable – Water – Jupiter
Libra – Cardinal – Air – Venus
Aquarius – Fixed – Air – Saturn
Gemini – Mutable – Air – Mercury
Capricorn – Cardinal – Earth – Saturn
Taurus – Fixed – Earth – Venus
Virgo – Mutable – Earth – Mercury
The planets have a powerful influence on us because they are so big and close. The stars, and consequently the constellations, are typically viewed as more subtle and supernal powers. The difference between lunar, solar, and stellar occult traditions is one about which much could be fruitfully said.
III.G. Microcosm, Macrocosm
As you read in the reading for this week, the human being is a microcosm, a holographic reflection of the universe as a whole, at least in its spiritual respects. To change yourself is to change the cosmos – to go within yourself is to go outside yourself. This is the traditional view of how magick works, according to hermeticism and its derivative traditions.
But this does not automatically work. If the human vessel is corrupt or spiritually damaged, the correspondence to the macrocosm will not work, and hence the magick itself will be much weakened. We must make ourselves microcosms. That is the first goal of magick, and is represented by the balancing of the elements within oneself. It clarifies or cleans the mirror of our soul, so to speak, and allows passage to be made from the spirit to the material body and vice versa.
III.H. The Great Work
So what is the point of the occult? Why would one practice occultism? There are generally two primary answers: to develop spiritually, or to get shit done.
Spiritual development is itself split into two traditions: the Left-Hand Path and the Right-Hand Path. The LHP seeks self-deification, while the RHP seeks to dissolve in union with God. Both traditions, however, typically have a two-step process: first, Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel, in other words contact with the True Will; and second, transcending the mundane ego. In the LHP this transcendence results in a kind of identity with the True Will and a transcendent individuality separate or isolated from others (not in a bad or lonely way; it merely describes the singularity or autonomy of the self). In the RHP this second step is merging with God, annihilating the self and becoming everything (or nothing!).
The other answer is to get stuff done. Sometimes the occult is used for its “low magick” or “sorcery” potential, to improve one’s life by influencing external factors; for example, one could cast a spell to pass a test, or to get a lot of money, or to overcome anxiety, and so on. The earliest kinds of magick of which we have a record are usually of this type, but since the days of the Golden Dawn this kind of magick has taken a backseat to “high magick” or “theurgy”.
We should talk about precisely what we want to accomplish in this group, although we are nowhere close at present to our True Wills, or to making a decision between the LHP and RHP. And in the early stages of (elemental) work, high magick and low magick are relatively close together, since the magician must balance the self (which is inherently beneficial in life as such) before moving on to theurgy. In any case, magick is not merely a thing you do, it is a thing you are, more a way of life than a hobby, at least if it is done as intended.
III.I. Yoga & Meditation
No magickal practice could be complete with meditation and possibly other yogic practices (pranayama, breath control, prime among them). Meditation is the means for trance states, by which spiritual and subconscious messages can be communicated.
Meditation is generally of two types: concentration and insight. Concentration is focusing upon one single thing for an extended period of time, usually the feeling of the breath as it moves in and out of the nostrils. Important stages of concentration meditation are as follows: pratyahara, or “withdrawal from the senses”, when one sort of subtracts one’s mind from the body and from external reality; dharana, or “thought control”, where one can willfully hold the object of concentration steadily for a period of time; dhyana, when, according to Swami Vivekananda, “...the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current, as it were, towards that point”; and finally, the ultimate stage of yogic meditation, samadhi, or god-consciousness. Crowley first achieved dhyana after reducing his breathing to one breath per minute for a full eight hours.
To do concentration meditation, sit or lie as still as possible. Do not move at all while you are meditating. Do not think of anything but the feeling of the breath in the nostrils. If your mind wanders from the breath, firmly but gently return it to the breath with your will (here will be a profound early encounter with the magickal will…). It may help to count down from 10 with deep breaths (i.e. breathe in and say or see the number “10”, then breathe out “10”, then in “9”, and so on). Concentration meditation is almost certainly the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, and even though I’ve been doing it for quite a while now I am still not very good at it. The key is to practice strictly and regularly, to breathe deeply, and to stay as utterly still as possible. This is the backbone of any mystical or magickal practice, and you will probably get more immediate results from meditation than from magick. Try to do this at least 15 minutes a day, if possible. There really is no upper limit when concentration meditation stops being beneficial, but even most yogi masters stick to about 4 hours per session.
Insight meditation is in some sense the opposite of concentration; where concentration closes off the mind and turns consciousness inward, insight meditation seeks to experience everything at once as a single whole. To do insight meditation, try to focus on everything you are feeling at once; do not divide up the experience into the feeling of your head, of your feet, etc. Then add to that sensation everything you are hearing; try not to differentiate between hearing and feeling. Finally, add everything you are seeing. While doing this, breathe deeply and try not to let any words enter your mind. Try to see the oneness in all that you are experiencing. If you gain some proficiency in this, normal waking consciousness will feel profoundly unconscious, for you will have experienced an expansion of consciousness that you could not even conceive before. This meditation is good because you can do it anywhere at almost any time, and is not as fragile or time-consuming as concentration.
III.J. Occultism and Language
Occultism has a strange relationship to language. The realm of discourse has a decidedly negative or damaging effect on experience, according to the occult traditions. This is because language takes us outside of ourselves. Put another way, language takes things externally, refuses to inhabit their inner processes, and thereby stops us from coming to true knowledge. We fail to experience a movement or concept as it is in itself when our experience becomes lost or othered in language.
Consequently, the language used in occultism is either of an evocative kind (to produce a certain mental state), an intentional kind (to announce one’s will and thereby objectify it), or a magickal kind. This last kind makes words transcend language and interpretation, instead manifesting directly as force, as a magickal action and as the presencing of the entity whose name is vibrated.
According to Kenneth Grant, the “barbarous names of evocation” work in this magickal way precisely because they are so barbarous. These names – “GOLACHAB”, “ABLANATHANALBA”, “IO ERBETH, IO PAKERBETH, IO BOLCHOSETH, IO APOMX”, and so on – activate a certain part of the back of the brain (the reptilian brain) via their barbarity and function as terrible and divine. Whether any barbarous name would do or whether there really are particular names or sounds corresponding to particular forces I leave to you all to discover for yourselves.
III.K. Occultism as Philosophy
The word “philosophy” actually means “love of wisdom”. Wisdom is not knowledge, nor is love possession. Philosophy, then, is an activity: the science and art of striving for wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is not a thing, not something that can be known on a correspondence model of knowledge or truth, and not something that can be apprehended externally. Wisdom is much more a way of life, something almost completely lost in contemporary academic philosophy. To strive for wisdom is to seek truth, certainly, but it is to seek truth as a process of living. This implies the greatest taboo in all of contemporary philosophy: Know Thyself! Note that this knowledge is not at all like the external knowledge of correspondence, of argumental superiority, and so on.
I say this is a taboo because the academy is not about you or me – it is about knowledge, something if not objective, at least objectively studied and presented. Personal issues have no place – the closest we get to that is Nietzsche, but even then our pious commentary ruins the effect. We are not philosophers, and the academy is no place for a philosopher. Rather, the academy is for scholars, for those who comment upon other works, who deal always externally with everything. Scholarship is an inherently external activity, and for that reason it always clashes with philosophy, and treats philosophy with mistrust.
But it was not always this way. Experience of oneself, mastery of oneself, used to come first – see Plato, or Pythagoras. Without knowing yourself, how can you possibly know what truth is? How can you possibly know reality? How can you know wisdom?
What must once again be reconstituted is an occult philosophy, a striving for wisdom that externalizes itself and aids in other strivings, that opens pathways to the divine and blazes trails of thinking and being. This is the most vital task of philosophy today, and we cannot accomplish it if we do not take into account the insights of millenia of occult speculation on the nature of the self, the will, truth, reality, and of course the divine.
This has been a relatively broad and general introduction to occult traditions and several of the practices associated with occultism. If there are any particular areas of interest, I can write something up on those, or merely discuss them with you. This has been intended to showcase the breadth of the occult tradition. Questions?