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

Month: October 2021

On Christ and Hermeticism

Crucifixion scene from Alan Moore’s “Promethea” (issue #17, p. 20), illustrated by JH Williams

Within contemporary occulture, one often runs into people who are uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of the Abrahamic god in grimoiric and other magic, and especially with the person of Jesus Christ. Given the familial religious abuse that many of us have grown up with, this is no surprise. (Please, Lord, save us from your followers!) Many people have successfully substituted non-Abrahamic deities and spirits for the Christian variety; but like it or loathe it, the presence of Christian names and thought in Western magic must ultimately be dealt with in one fashion or another.

While I escaped the familial religious trauma so many have experienced, I too have my own ambivalence regarding Christianity and the person of Jesus in the magic that I work. What follows is a bit about my own background, and how I personally reconcile my own religious sensibilities and magical work with the Christian view of God and the person of Jesus.

My Background

I grew up in a liberal family in college-town Oklahoma. My parents were non-observant Christians; I don’t recall ever going to church during my youth. After my first religious experience at age 12, I became very involved in the Episcopal Church, and at one point wanted to enter the clergy and become a priest. After several years, however, I started to feel a growing discomfort around reciting the Nicene Creed without being able to fully assent to what it was I was saying. I came to realize that I had very little idea who (or what) this Jesus person was; and given that the concept of animal sacrifice has always violently clashed with my sensibilities, the central idea of Christianity, with its sacrificial death for the remission of sin, has never really worked for me. At age 16, I quietly left the church to pursue my own path.

While I never went through any familial religious abuse, I was still a liberal kid growing up in Oklahoma, which has a large population of fundamentalist Christians. Between school and my extracurricular life, I still had plenty of abuse directed at me. I’ve met Christians who are true to the spiritual journey and model the true values espoused in the Gospels, but they have been fairly few and far between. So despite my relative privilege with respect to abuse trauma while growing up, I still was not left unscathed.

Over time, I came to a different understanding of Christianity that largely works for me, even though I don’t identify as a Christian (instead considering myself a religious adherent of Hermeticism). While I still have few if any answers to the questions that bothered me so much in my teens, in hindsight those new understandings made a lot of the discomfort and cognitive dissonance I had with respect to Christianity dissipate. Nonetheless, I never returned to the church: I had found my own road to travel instead.

It’s not often that explicitly Christian prayers or verbiage enters my magical practice, though I do draw from a variety of Christian sources between the grimoires and my work with the planetary archangels. The archangels in my experience have been pretty neutral with respect to bringing in that Christian lens, though it does happen from time to time–and it’s always jarring to me when it does, because Christianity is neither the lens that I see through nor is it one that I find to be of especial personal significance to me these days. It was observing my own cognitive dissonance in these circumstances, and a desire to engage with it, that inspired this post.

Jesus and the Christ

As mentioned above, a big sticking point for me in my latter teen years with respect to the Nicene Creed was my agnosis regarding who the historical person of Jesus was, and what if any relationship that person had to the mythos that later developed around him.

What do we know about Jesus? There were many apocalyptic movements emerging around messiah figures during the time he lived, in Roman-occupied Galilee and Judea. This is not especially surprising: when an occupier wields absolute power over a marginalized group, the only hope for deliverance comes from religious eschatology. Jesus was likely a revolutionary, and was executed when he gained enough popularity that both the Romans and the Jews who represented the established mainstream began to view him as a threat. Regardless of whether Jesus was indeed the unique incarnation of God on earth, he embraced the symbolism of animal sacrifice to represent himself–the scapegoat of the hegemony–as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

But how do we connect the idea of Jesus as a person to Jesus as the Christ? My solution has been to regard them as two separate figures entirely. On the one hand there’s the human Jesus–the historical person, much of whose life has been lost to the sands of time. On the other hand there is the mythic Christ, a cosmic entity only loosely tied to the historical personage, who shares more in common with the other gods than with humanity. When I look at the issue through that lens, it sidesteps a lot of my own discomfort.

Nor is it clear to me that the person of Jesus as the Christ was ever intended to represent the one and only true son of God. The word generally translated from the Greek as “only-begotten” (μονογενής, monogenês) refers to the only member of a kind or kin, but a better translation would be “unique”. And we are all unique children of the Divine, are we not? Consequently, I tend to regard μονογενής as meaning something more like “uniquely special”–just as every human being is.

Additionally, we must look at the words χριστός (christos) and  מָשִׁיחַ‎ (moshiach or messiah), in context. Both words simply mean “anointed”, and again it is not at all clear that this was intended to be a singular designation. Anointing in the biblical context was primarily done as a part of the coronation of a new king of Israel, and was itself viewed as the magico-religious act by which a selected individual became king. After the Assyrian invasion and conquest of Israel, there were no more kings to be anointed. The Jewish concept of the messiah then became an eschatological one, the future anointed king of the new kingdom of Israel. Part of the subversive theology of early Christianity was the idea that this new king named Jesus was not a temporal ruler, but rather a ruler in the heavenly realms and in the world to come. Either way, we must bear in mind that Christ is properly speaking a title, and not the surname of Jesus.

Reconciling the Conflicts

Explicitly Christian verbiage very rarely comes up in my own practice and extemporaneous invocation/prayer, but it always weirds me out when it does. That said, I also do my primary spirit work at this point with the planetary archangels, who are a bit more keen on Christianity than the gods or other spirits. So it does come up at times, and it’s a bit jarring. I’ve had to compartmentalize the historical Jesus and the mythic Christ into entirely separate concepts in order to reconcile my own differences.

I still have only the barest idea who and what the historical Jesus was. I’ve largely set aside that question for the last 15 years or so as not especially relevant to my interests. In my case, I found a lot of my own reconciliation through a study of the historical context of Christianity as a religion, and through seeing the mythos of Christianity as one “true” sacred story among many other true sacred stories. When viewed from the perspective of the infinite rather than the human and finite, there is no reason why Christ should be incompatible with any other mythos in that regard.

I confess, Jesus still doesn’t do it for me, and neither does Christ. I resonate a lot more with the Graeco-Egyptian gods. But I’ll form relationships and work with both, and continue to lean into my discomfort and cognitive dissonance with an aim to sort it out and unpack my baggage. As an apocryphal story goes, when a Christian missionary once proselytized to a Native American tribe, the chief listened to the story with interest. At the end, he said, “That is a good story. We will tell that one too.”

Here’s to good stories, and the divine truths they conceal within.

On Ritual Purity

Whenever I hear magicians talking about spirit evocation, particularly from a grimoiric standpoint, there is inevitably a discussion of ritual purity.  I always find myself a bit surprised by the degree of ritual purity a number of other magicians observe, because I have had positive and effective results while doing very little in that regard:  my purity routine for ritual generally involves little more than bathing/showering while saying the Asperges Me.  I have my own take on ritual purity as a result, which seems to differ from that of a number of other practitioners.

I’ve often heard magicians express the viewpoint that ritual bathing is necessary because our natural smell is offensive to the spirits.  I find that this notion ignores a key bit of history.  While bathing was much more common in medieval Europe than popular culture leads us to believe (bathhouses were plentiful and often frequented), the general hygiene of the populace was still less well-maintained than it is in our present day of private showers.  As late as 1558, deodorant was still considered the realm of magic, as we can see from della Porta’s Magia Naturalis where he gives a method “to correct the ill scent of the Arm-pits” (Book 9, Ch. XXVIII).  I strongly doubt that many of us in the industrialized world today smell offensive compared to the average medieval European, so from a logical standpoint the argument that ritual bathing is necessary to avoid offending the spirits with our human stench holds little water for me when applied to the modern day.

The other two big elements of ritual purity I generally hear about are fasting and sexual abstinence.  Early on in my practice, one might say that I observed fasting fastidiously.  But I found it more distracting than I did helpful, so I ultimately abandoned the practice.  My focus and concentration during ritual, and therefore the quality and efficacy of my magic, increased as a result.  Asceticism in general has never resonated with me, and I’ve never personally found much value in it.

Similarly, I find that a lot of the prescriptions for sexual abstinence derive from an Augustinian, sex-negative cultural lens that equates abstinence with saintliness.  Sexual abstinence may also have been related to the aforementioned hygiene considerations.  It also appears to operate on the tacit principle that the continence of sexual energy can be channelled into the efficacy of one’s magic, which may be true for some but has always felt like an entirely separate and unrelated energy for me.  Again, that sort of asceticism may do it for some, but it doesn’t do it for me.  I find it unnecessary at best, and counterproductive to my practice at worst.  I’ve never experienced my conjuring work to be ineffective as a result.

I also don’t much hold to the idea of following grimoires to the letter.  While the rubrics have long histories in some cases, we must keep in mind that the grimoires were originally the working journals of magicians.  They may have been using recipes passed down to them, or they may have been creating their own, but I find inherent in the idea of magic itself is the act of creation and creativity.  As a result, I look at the rubric from a functional standpoint rather than one of orthopraxy, and I substitute and adapt to fit what resonates best with me.

Generally speaking, rather than drawing a circle I’ll perform the LBRP, and follow it up with asperging the quarters with water and censing them with incense after the Golden Dawn style.  Occasionally I’ll use my sword to trace a physical circle, but I tend to find it unnecessary.  And that’s all the preamble I generally use before the starting invocation.  I use a standard license to depart.  I’ve never particularly seen the need for more than that.

One caveat here is that thus far I’ve only communicated with deities and with the planetary spirits and archangels.  I can’t speak to other classes of spirits and their own preferences, and if I find myself impaired in my work at some point I may ultimately experiment with ritual purity after I rule out other factors.  But thus far, freeing myself of the shackles of prescriptive asceticism has been nothing but positive to my own practice.

Bottom line: If it works, use it.  If you don’t need more than that, why overcomplicate things?  If the grimoiric prescriptions for ritual purity work for you, I wish you well and encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing.  But if they don’t resonate with you, if you find them more of an impediment than an enhancement to your practice, I encourage you to start scaling back and experimenting with whether those elements are truly necessary or whether they prove a hindrance to you like they did to me.

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