Exploring the intersection of magic, culture, spirituality, and humanity

Month: September 2021

Communication with the Spirits: A Guide for the Perplexed

In the world of magic, there are fewer things more divisive it seems than the ideas around invocation/evocation of spirits and what it means to interact with them.  This isn’t a matter of any small or trivial difficulty, even for those who have experienced such phenomena themselves.  The difficulty is even greater for those who have not achieved such communication, and who are often left wondering what exactly they should expect or how things are supposed to work.  As with many things in magic, nothing is going to look exactly the same from one practitioner to the next, and our current subject is no different.  While I can only provide my own perspective on the issue, I am doing so in the hopes that it can clear a bit of the confusion around the topic and bring practitioners (and aspiring practitioners!) together with some more productive dialogue.
Much of the perplexity seems to surround exactly what should be expected in terms of the encounter with the spirits.  Joseph Lisiewski famously put forward the idea that evoked spirits must be conjured to physical manifestation, which has probably done more to provoke doubt and contribute to imposter syndrome among magicians who work with such spirits than any other statement in the past century.
The simple fact is, the vast majority of people who work with spirits, no matter how intimately, do not experience them as physical manifestations.  Much like the person who looks into magic expecting to figure out how to teleport and hurl fireballs, one who begins working with spirits anticipating that they will appear in a grandiose poof! of smoke and celestial light will very quickly find themselves disappointed.
And this, dear reader, is why I am writing today:  to help dispel some of those faulty beliefs and expectations that we all inherit over the course of our lives, and to encourage you to live the magical life you want to be living.

My Backstory

For a long time I thought that I was a “squib”, incapable of scrying with any meaningful success.  Like John Dee, I could be the magical operator in such a working, but felt that in order to make any progress with spirit work I would need to find a talented scryer to work with if I were to see any results from it.  Then I had some encounters that were too intense to ignore–and it not only gave me a new understanding of what it meant to converse with spirits, but also showed me that many of my previous assumptions about the nature of that conversation were utterly incorrect.  Moreover, I came to recognize that I had already been experiencing the spirits, but had failed to recognize it at the time because of my self-imposed conceptual blinders.
The greatest irony of all is that it was precisely such an experience, back when I was 12 years old, that ultimately led me to the path I walk today.  The way that I have described the experience ever since is that it was like being hit upside the head with a brick wrapped in velvet.  I experienced a thought in my head that not only was not my own, but came into my head all at once, fully formed, rather than word by word as my own thoughts are generally produced.  To quote Philip K. Dick, speaking of his own life-changing experience, it was as if “my mind was invaded by a transcendentally rational mind”.  The message brought peace and clarity in a moment when I felt in crisis.  Not only was the thought not my own; but whatever its source, it seemed to be benevolent and caring.  At the time I believed it was the voice of God that I was hearing.  My desire to understand what happened to me, and even more so my desire to achieve that communication again, led me to make a lifelong study of religion and mysticism, and to tread down the magical path as soon as I discovered that it existed.
You might think that having had that encounter once I would experience it again in short order, but I didn’t.  Not until twenty-seven years had passed, more than 25 of which were spent in the pursuit of magic.  But I don’t claim that my results are typical.  I had to spend a long time wandering in the dark before I realized that a lot of my benightedness was self-inflicted.  And that didn’t happen for me until I had another encounter–one that felt less like a velvet-wrapped brick and more like a nuclear warhead.
I never said that I was the most perceptive person, and apparently it takes rather a lot to get my attention.  Oops.
Over the past several years, I’ve had a number of very successful scrying sessions, as well as some more spontaneous contacts with the gods and spirits–which leads me to believe that my previous issues were less to do with my own innate capabilities (or lack thereof), and more to do with faulty beliefs and expectations leading me not to try my hand at actually doing the thing and being persistent at it.  
It was only after my nuclear wake-up call (and an embarrassingly long amount of time after that, I might add) that I started to realize I did have spirit contact before that.  I just didn’t recognize it, because I didn’t understand that those interactions generally happen inside your own head and can sometimes feel more like a part of you than something external.  Of course, at the time I was still working within the confines of the Golden Dawn system, which intrinsically puts the magical contact on rails in order to make it safer by confining it to a specific form in order to introduce budding magicians more gradually to the things they will experience once they step out on their own as Adepts and begin to do more advanced workings solo.  But I did notice that, especially after my Adeptus Minor initiation, things started to feel different.  When I was assuming the godform of a temple office, I would connect with it emotively in ways that felt new and curious to me.  I allowed the feelings to guide my voice, informing the tones and facial expressions and other mannerisms that I adopted in speaking my ritual parts.  It just felt right.  And while I heard no voices and saw no visions during those times, I’ve come to recognize since that those connections I had with the godforms were real contacts.  I simply didn’t realize it at the time, because I’m so used to verbal communication that it didn’t occur to me that spirit communication can also be emotive and nonverbal.  And the middle of a scripted ceremony isn’t an especially inviting context in which to have a two-way conversation.  Gotta read those lines, after all, and the ritual isn’t any more conducive to communication between a magician and a spirit than it is to side-chatter between the various ritual participants.
So while much is made of visions and voices, there’s more to it than just that.  Communication can very easily (perhaps more easily) be emotive or otherwise nonverbal as well.  But what of the visions and the voices?

Spirit Communication:  How It Works for Me

As I’ve already recounted, one way that spirits can communicate is emotively:  via emotional impressions directly upon the psyche.  We can call this clairsentience, or the ability to feel that communication on an emotive or affective level.
Generally speaking, however, I experience the spirits in visions and/or voices.  As with emotive communication, one of the greatest points of confusion is that those who have written about such experiences have not been especially detailed about what this experience is actually like.  Consequently, people who are new to spirit conjure may assume that a spirit will appear to the physical apparatus of their eyes, like a concrete object.  Or they may assume that the voice of a spirit will sound much like the voice of another person in the room with them.  This may happen in some instances for some people, but it has not been my experience; nor have I encountered any other spirit workers describing it as theirs to the best of my recollection.
We may term the seeing of visions clairvoyance if we so choose.  The distinction between a daydream and a vision is a fine one when describing the difference in how the two work; but when I experience a vision, I generally find that I am not the one in the driver’s seat.  Instead I’m viewing a tableau unfolding in my head, consistent with the nature of the spirit that I am conjuring.  Sometimes it is a static image, sometimes it is a moving one; but when the image moves, it does so of its own accord–not mine.  I am cognizant of what I am seeing, I can shift my focus from one portion of the image to another, but the way it unfolds is much like a (non-lucid) dream in that I appear to have little conscious agency in the process.
Similarly for voices.  When I hear the voice of a spirit, it takes place entirely within my head.  We can call this clairaudience.  Studies have shown that there are some people who don’t have internal monologues, but I am not one of them.  My internal monologue is constant.  As a result, I have a pretty good handle on what “my” internal voice sounds like, in the same way that other people can recognize me by the sound of my voice.  When I have the voice of a spirit inside my head, however, it is not that same voice.  It “sounds” different, for lack of a better word.  Additionally, those messages generally tend to enter my head fully-formed, whereas my internal monologue is created word by word as I think to myself in phrases and sentences.  To borrow a term from computer science, my internal monologue is processed in serial, one word or piece of data after another; whereas the voices of the spirits almost always come to me in a manner that feels more parallel, in which the various words are transmitted all at once and are received at the same time.
When I have had two-way communication with spirits, they also seem to be able to receive my thoughts telepathically in the same way that they transmit their own.  In one notable encounter with the archangel Cassiel, he answered a question that I had barely begun to formulate in my head, much less “voiced” to him.  Some spirit workers insist that spirits only respond to verbal communication, believing that it draws firmer boundaries if one chooses to speak messages aloud rather than doing so in one’s head.  There is certainly something disconcerting about having another entity inside your head; but whereas the explanation I heard for this choice was that spoken communication doesn’t allow for a spirit to “get inside your head”, I for one am unconvinced that it makes any practical difference whether one chooses to communicate verbally or telepathically with the spirits.  In any case, if you are working with an entity you do not wish to communicate as intimately with, you should have all of the requisite protections of a circle and a magical weapon and names of power at your disposal:  this should provide sufficient protection for the operator regardless of how the operator chooses to communicate from their own end, and will generally make little difference as to how the communication from the spirit itself comes across.
One thing I have noticed about both visions and voices in spirit communication is that if you poke at the message (whether the vision you are seeing or the message that the voice has spoken), it will demonstrate resiliency.  That is to say, when I am engaging in my own internal monologue, I can choose to derail that monologue in any number of different directions whenever I want.  When I receive a vision or a message, however, and look askance at it in my head and start questioning it, I will feel a push back in my direction, reasserting the original content.  This is much like pushing at a flexible membrane, feeling the equal and opposite pressure against your finger, and seeing the membrane spring back to its original form when you withdraw.  This usually feels very gentle, but definite.  During one encounter I was receiving a message which I understood was to be delivered to another person.  I recall being surprised by the wording of the message, and thought to myself, “maybe I should soften that a bit.”  To my surprise, the spirit gently poked me in the forehead with her finger as if to say “nope!” and I felt the words come again the same as before.  While the pushback isn’t generally quite that tactile in my experience, it is nonetheless a commonality.
These properties of spirit communication are very jarring at first, but I quickly grew accustomed to them–and to recognizing them as signs of a potential spirit contact, as opposed to a mere misfire of the brain.
Finally, you’ll notice I didn’t title this section “Spirit Communication: How It Works”.  I’ve spoken with enough other spirit conjurers, read enough works by them, and have listened to enough interviews with them, that I believe my experience of spirit communication is fairly typical.  That doesn’t mean others don’t experience them differently, or that my experience is somehow normative.  Moreover, atypical is not synonymous with incorrect.  Polyphanes has written before about his experiences coming predominately in taste and smell (clairgustance and clairalience, respectively) whereas he experiences little in the way of vision.  It may not be the most common method of experiencing, but it’s pretty damn cool nonetheless, and I don’t doubt his results as a magician.

A Final Note

If you haven’t yet read Polyphanes’ post “Beginner’s Practices” (also linked above), I strongly suggest you hasten to read it.  He echoes much of what I have said here, while providing some truly sage advice for people starting out–especially those who are trying to work with spirits.
Additionally, please note that just because an entity is discarnate and capable of communicating with you telepathically, that does not mean you should implicitly trust any information or advice that you may be given.  Always verify any information given, and always test the spirits.  By their fruits ye shall know them.

(This post was prompted by a conversation I had with my friend “linceoui” whom I know from the Hermetic Agora Discord server–which you should check out if you haven’t already!  Shout-out to you, and thanks for always giving me good conversations and a lot to think about.)

A Method for Cryptographic Sigil Creation

Inspired by my recent conversations with Erik ArnesonTres Henry, and Taylor Bell, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the potential uses for cryptographic hashes in the creation of magical sigils.  After playing around with the ideas a bit and making a few false starts, I’ve developed a proof of concept to share with the wider community.

Background: What’s a Cryptographic Hash?

In the world of cryptography, a hash function is a one-way encryption operation.  This means that source data (plaintext) can be encrypted with a hash function, but once encrypted it cannot be decrypted.  This doesn’t sound especially useful at first glance, but in truth these hash functions play a vital role in the world of information security.  Because the same input will always give the same hashed output, the hash of a file or other piece of data serves as a unique signature of that input.  This has many uses in file integrity checking, authentication, and other arenas, but from a magical perspective it gives us an output which is very much like a sigil or seal, in that it provides a uniquely identifying signature which also serves as a representation in miniature of the spirit whose sigil it is.  Because the output of a cryptographic hash function uniquely represents the essence of the input (i.e. if even one bit of data in the input is changed, the resulting hash will be drastically different), we can treat a hash value as a true symbol for the underlying data and interact with it semantically at that level.

While the above may all sound good on a theoretical level, it doesn’t give you much of a feel for what a hash actually is.  Although it may sound complex, from an operator perspective taking the hash of a piece of data is very easy.  To illustrate, let’s generate an MD5 hash.  Mac and Linux users have it easy here, with the built-in md5 and md5sum commands, respectively; Windows users can make use of the certutil command or use a third-party program to perform the same function.So let’s say we’ve created a large file named data.fil, and now we want to compute the hash.  From the command line, we’ll do the following:

Mac:  md5 data.fil
Linux:  md5sum data.fil
Windows:  certutil -hashfile data.fil MD5

The output of an MD5 hash function will always be a 128-bit value, given in 32 hexadecimal characters, similar to the following: d0dcbadbba85a2e1ca7cf53d64bd7728

Easy enough, right?  Now that you know what this looks like in practice, let’s talk about how we can leverage this output in a magical operation.

Proof of Concept: Steps and Missteps

Having recognized the relationship between a hash value and a sigil, my first inclination was simply to sigillize the hash value itself.  While the hexadecimal value itself may indeed be the signature of the data it represents, I don’t find long strings of hex especially compelling from a magical-aesthetic standpoint.  Magic relies on the affective dimension of experience to connect with our non-rational minds, and visual representations of sigils are far more effective in my experience at doing this.

Fortunately, turning the hex output into a visual sigil seemed to be an easy matter.  Given that hexadecimal values use 16 characters, there appeared to be a relatively clean mapping onto the 4×4 magic square traditionally ascribed to Jupiter.  I wrote out a petition and saved it to a text file, then took the MD5 hash of the file.  When I began to draw out the sigil, however, two significant problems presented themselves.

The first problem is that while the 4×4 magic square represents a 16-value symbol set, it does so using the numerals from 1 to 16.  Hexadecimal, on the other hand, uses the values 0 to 15.  This meant that the math on the magic square that works in decimal fundamentally does not work for hex.  I considered working around the problem by reassigning 16 to 0, but ultimately this was an unsatisfying solution.  Some preliminary googling turned up no results on any prior work done to create a hexadecimal magic square, so in the interests of developing a proof of concept I set this issue aside for the time being.

As it turns out, the second problem was much more of a showstopper.  Namely, when you try to create a sigil with 32 nodes, especially in a 4×4 magic square, it turns out ugly.  There simply seems to be no way to cram in that much data visually without it turning into a jumbled mess.

That escalated quickly…

The crux of the issue here wasn’t the fundamental approach, however, but rather the sheer length of the hash value to be sigillized.  There are common hash algorithms other than MD5, but these have outputs that are even longer–I needed to go in the other direction.

My inspiration came in the form of one-time pads.  If you’ve ever used Google Authenticator for two-factor authentication, or used 2FA recovery codes, you’re already familiar with them.  The TOTP and HOTP algorithms, respectively, specify a method of generating unique codes based on two parameter values.  One of these parameters is always the “seed”, which is a hashed message.  The other parameter is either an incrementing counter in the case of HOTP, or a time value in the case of TOTP.  Most valuable for my purposes, however, was the fact that both algorithms have a default output of six decimal numbers.  This means that all of the “signature” value of the hash function is maintained (as hashing is an integral part of both OTP algorithms), while giving us a far more manageable output to work with.

While I considered using HOTP for these purposes, ultimately I decided to go with TOTP instead.  Although the intended use of both OTP algorithms is to generate multiple unique codes, for the purposes of creating a magical sigil we only need one.  This means that HOTP adds no real value to the equation, because its counter parameter is entirely superfluous to our needs.  TOTP, however, allows us the additional benefit of incorporating magical timing as an integral part of the sigil itself–which is a significant advantage, as it gives us an additional layer of meaning to incorporate into the “payload” of the final result.

Creating the Sigil

For my proof of concept I wrote out a petition to Michael and Raphael as the archangels of Tiphereth/Sol.  The text contains an invocation with the relevant divine names and with specific requests.

Next it was time to hash the text file containing the petition.  Though I had used the MD5 hashing algorithm previously because it generates the shortest commonly-used output, this time I elected to use SHA-1 as this algorithm is also utilized by the TOTP protocol and it felt more important to maintain symmetry given that the size of the hash value would not have any bearing on the size of the final OTP value.

While not a part of the TOTP protocol, when hash algorithms are used for password authentication it is common to “salt” the hash by prepending the individual’s username to the plaintext password before hashing the two together as a single unit.  This is done to mitigate against certain types of password cracking attacks, and serves to uniquely tie a password (which may be used independently by any number of people) to a specific username.  It felt meaningful to me to “salt” the hash of my petition with my magical name, which I did before taking the SHA-1 hash of the combined name and petition.  Now that I had the hex value of my hash output, I entered this as the seed value (or “shared secret”) in the TOKEN2 Paper TOTP Token Generator and was given a list of time-based OTP values.  Looking at the first entry in the list gave me the six-digit OTP for the present time, in the day and hour of the Sun:  975844.  This was a significantly more manageable output to deal with.

It turns out that in resolving my second problem, I had also eliminated the first:  while the 4×4 magic square is not natively suitable for hexadecimal, the 3×3 magic square traditionally attributed to Saturn fits the character space of the OTP output perfectly.  Note that while this square corresponds to Saturn (and I have my own reasons for finding value in this correspondence with respect to this methodology), the Saturnian connotation is not a necessary part of the method itself.  The key point is that we are utilizing a magic square which is consonant with the format of our output; any other semantic shadings are merely a potential bonus.

All that was left at this point was to draw out the sigil.  This time, I was much more satisfied with the results.

Now this is a sigil I can use.

While I primarily intended this operation as a proof of concept, rather than as a magical operation with full force of intent, I have already observed several synchronicities around the working.  Combined with the results of a divinatory reading, my preliminary expectation is that this method will prove effective.  As with anything in magic, time will tell.

Walkthrough:  Creating Your Own Cryptographic Sigil

For those of you who might want to follow this process to create your own cryptographic sigil, here’s a step by step guide.

First, create your “payload”.  This can be a written petition, as in my case; or it can be an image file, a .zip of multiple files together, or anything else you like.Next, hash the payload.  If you wish to salt the hash with your magical name or motto, as I did, you can do so easily on Mac or Linux platforms.  If you are a Windows user, this is more difficult.  If you have a plain text file, you can simply type in the name/motto at the beginning of the text file and save it (do not insert a space between the name/motto and the beginning of the text in the file).  Otherwise, I recommend skipping this step and simply hashing the file as-is.  To salt and hash the file at the same time, you can do the following:

  • Mac:  cat “MAGICAL_NAME” data.fil | shasum
  • Linux:  cat “MAGICAL NAME” data.fil | sha1sum

If you do not wish to salt the hash with your magical name/motto and want to merely hash the file itself, or if you are on Windows, use these commands:

  • Mac:  shasum data.fil
  • Linux:  sha1sum data.fil
  • Windows:  certutil -hashfile data.fil SHA1

Once you have the hash value, paste it as the “Seed” on the aforementioned TOTP generator website (be sure to click the button to change the seed format from Base32 to hex).  Provide your time zone, and generate the six-digit TOTP value.  As you will only be using a single OTP code, the step increment value does not matter for these purposes.

From there, draw out the sigil on the 3×3 magic square to complete the work.

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