At the Gate of a Labyrinth

After a five-day ordeal called New Student Orientation, I am officially matriculating.  There  My first class, appropriately, was Ancient Greek.  But I’ll talk about all that later.  Right now, I have a decision to make.  I want to work in the art-metals department to help pay for school … which is leaving me with a dilemma.

There aren’t any work-study openings left.  The head of the department didn’t come right out at say it, but it was made clear to me that they all go to his seniors.  There are, however, openings in his advanced metalworking class.  Two problems: that costs money, and I’m already taking a full course load.  He’s willing to work with me, though, so I have three options: to take the course (and with it the full additional cost and workload), to work as a TA under him (and work out the cost on an ad-hoc basis), or to leave my course load alone.

Being a magician, I of course consulted the Tarot – my Crowley-Harris Thoth deck, to be specific; I’ve been using it for my daily readings and carrying it around with me rather like a child with a favorite blanket.  I did a modified version of the Decision Game (Banzhaf and Theler, pp 44-45) spread for three options instead of two.

My results are as follows:

The significator is the Queen of Swords – I’m struggling to impose rational order on what might be a fundamentally emotional decision.

The first path – to take the course – procedes from [XV the Devil] to [10 Wwands “Oppression”] to [VII the Chariot].  In some ways, the Devil aspect of this is easy to see: the temptation of the fire, metal, and hammers calls strongly to me; the temptation to do something I already know I’m good at, to keep my hand in; to make every penny of my tuition count.  The generative aspects seem more metaphorical, but one can never be quite sure.  Looking at the 10W, I was initially confused.  After closer examination, however, I feel that it is simply stating the obvious: that I will be overworked, pushing the limits of my time and energy.  That it will end in the Chariot is most interesting: that the class will give me the opportunity to move forward in some meaningful and powerful way.

The second path – to take the TA position – is more clear.  [XI Lust] leads to [XII the Hanged Man] and ends in [9 Swords “Cruelty”].  This is probably not the way to go.  But then, half-measures rarely are.

The final path – to skip it and leave my course load as is – begins with [2 Wands “Dominion”] and leads through [the Knight of Wands] to [the Queen of Wands].  The 2W gives me pause, as Banzhaf talks a lot about risk-taking in relationship to this card; this seems strange to me as this is the path of not taking the risk.  The Knight of Wands is more clear: this is the direct path, the road of staying focused and on target.  The Queen of Wands seems to promise leadership opportunities at the end, and perhaps other opportunities as well that I can’t foresee.  It is also interesting to me that here, on the “stick to the books” path, is where I find the most fire cards.

One rarely expects clear answers from the Tarot, but rarely have I gotten answers quite so ambiguous.

Belated Forays into Ceremonial Magick

I have always been simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by ceremonial magic.  Fascinated with the elaborate props and ritual, with the finely tuned cosmology and infinite resources, and with the endless influence it has held over Western magical tradition.  Repulsed by the fundamentally Abrahamic roots, the seeming rigidity of rank and practice, and the endless hours of formal, repetitive work.

As a witch, my magical practice owes a great deal to ceremonial magic: Gerald Gardner based his infamous Book of Shadows on the rites of the Freemasons and the Golden Dawn, steeped in pastoralist poetry and (presumably) tempered by his own visionary experiences.  Many British Traditional rites (or so I am assured the scholar Ronald Hutton and by those who are willing to push the boundaries of their oaths to one group or the other) are nearly indistinguishable from those of the Golden Dawn, and many of those in turn mimic Masonic rites.

Even before I began studying Wiccan ritual as such, my first magical work was a variant of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.  That ritual – the bastardized one, found in some forum or FTP server; not the true LBRP – remains fundamental to my magical practice.

I have owned many book son ceremonial magic over the years.  Eliphas Levi’s Doctrine and Ritual of Transcendental Magic was my second occult book purchase, after the Simon Necronomicon (I was sixteen years old.  I didn’t know any better.).  I own Barret’s The Magus and Donald Michael Kraig’s Modern Magic.  I have owned and lost or sold a half-dozen other books on the subject over the years.  Most of them I never got around to reading, let alone doing.

My actual forays into ceremonialism began, interestingly, with Chaos Magic – borrowing Phill Hine’s Condensed Chaos from Chirotus Infinitum).  I have recently finished reading the much-lauded Chicken Qabalah of Lon Milo DuQuette, supplemented in interesting ways by Dion Fortune’s Sea Priestess and Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild.  Now, I continue with this much-belated portion of my magical training with a … somewhat less respectable source: Christopher Penczak’s Temple of High Witchcraft.  I will be supplementing this with Kraig, Barret, and Levi , of course, and with several blogs recommended to me by my friend Sthenno – observant readers will have noted the addition of several blogs to my reading list over the last few moths; Head For the Red, Rune Soup, Conjure Gnosis, and My Occult Circle are among her recommendations.

Frankly, If I’d realized that ceremonial magic involved so much visionary work, I’d have probably tried it years ago.

Because it is such a cerebral form of magic, I am reading the books ahead of time and will begin Penczak’s exercises on the 15th of August – as I begin settling into my new apartment in Far Eastern Indiana and wait for the Fall semester to begin.  I will journal rigorously, and will hopefully have many elucidating experiences to write about here.

Source Review: the Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford, by Lon Milo DuQuette

Ever since Aradia gifted my with my own personal copy of Crowley’s Thoth deck – skillfully hunted down in the dark corners of the internet, no more than eight weeks before it was once more available in print – I have been using DuQuette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot in conjunction with Hajo Banzhaf’s Keywords.  As such, I already had some inclination that Duquette was both a brilliant magician and a hilariously funny man.  When I went looking for the Chicken Qabalah, I was not actually aware that DuQuette was the author.  I was simply looking for double-0-duh book on Qabalah, so that I might have better luck understanding the paradigms of mainline Western occultists, and the Chicken Qabalah had been recommended to me by numerous sources, but without attribution.  When I found my copy, I was delighted to see that it was by an author I had already come to respect.

As the title implies, The Chicken Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford: Dilettante’s Guide to What You Do and Do Not Need to Know to Become a Qabalist  is humorous exploration of Qabalistic thought through the medium of a pseudepigraphy, wherein he attributes his absurd framing of Qabalistic ideas to the clearly-mad (and utterly fictional) Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford – as well as a number of opinions he might have difficulty expressing in another mode.

The book is written in ten chapters, covering numerous core concepts of Qabalah as relevant to a magician.  Several of the most abstract doctrines are distilled into Ten “Command-Rants”.  The four worlds and four parts of the soul are explained through the mechanism of a screenplay.  The Hebrew alphabet is covered as concisely as possible.  The structure of the Sephiroth within the Tree of Life is laid out crudely.  Tarot correspondences and numerology are discussed, and the concept of the Holy Guardian Angel is introduced.  Finally, the book concludes with the introduction of a Qabalistic Mystery.

The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford was exactly what I needed it to be: not so much an introduction to Qabalistic magic, but rather a foundation in Qabalistic thought to prepare me for an introduction to Qabalistic magic.  DuQuette’s warped humor is a highly effective teaching tool – making the material more interesting for the casual student, and more memorable to any reader.  I highly recommend this book.

DuQuette, Lon Milo. The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford: Dilettante’s Guide to What You Do and Do Not Need to Know to Become a Qabalist. San Francisco: Weiser, 2001. Print.

Occult Titles

I first encountered the title “Frater” in The King’s Dragon, by Kate Elliot. Although the novel (and its sequels) are set in a magnificently researched alternate Europe during the early Medieval period, it did not occur to me that the title might genuine until some years later when I came across the authors Frater U.D. and Frater Barrabas.  I began to wonder what the title meant and why someone would want to claim that title – especially F. Barrabas, a Wiccan magician.  Recently, I was introduced to a magical blog by one Frater Acher.  All three are ceremonial magicians of one stripe or another. 

Once is an incident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern.  l have no doubt that the taking of titles is a long and storied tradition within (at the very least) Western occult practices. I have been led to understand that the titles within the Golden Dawn – and the Freemasons from whom they draw much of their ritual – can be quite elaborate.  I know that it has been the peculiar practice among many American Wiccans to take the titles of “Lord” or (especially) “Lady” as part of their craft names.  How widespread is this practice?  How far back does it go?  I now have a new area of research.

Academic Rites of Passage

In this last week I have undergone two rites of passage binding me closer to the world of formal academia.

Monday, I accepted the invitation – originally received last May, but overlooked because I didn’t really understand what the organization was, or what opportunities it would have afforded me – to join the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.  Membership in the society will open a number of doors for me (though not quite so many as it would have had I accepted the invitation immediately, and with it a great deal of scholarship money I didn’t know existed), ranging from letters of recommendation, to possible transfer scholarships, and perhaps even to consideration for the larger honor society upon which it was patterned, Phi Beta Kappa.  If nothing else, it is a welcome recognition of my academic accomplishments so far, and confers upon me the right to fancy regalia at my graduation ceremony in May.

Saturday, I endured the trial of the ACT in the hopes of securing admission to such lofty schools as the University of Chicago or Reed College, which require such rituals even of transfer juniors.  This particular trial (and/or its competitor, the SAT) is actually one of the things that I was elated to avoid when I first decided against college.  Though I did not study as hard for this test as perhaps I should have, but I believe that I did well.  If nothing else, I am certain that I did at least as well on the real thing as I did on the practice test, on which I received a score of 29.

The college testing experience is, I believe, nearly universal in the United States.  I remember clearly being pressured and herded toward the PSATs and the SAT in high school.  Although Wikipedia assures me that the ACT is more popular in the midwest, it’s not the one I remember being “encouraged” to take.  That element of shared experience, combined with the fiscal sacrifice, the rigid structure, and the intellectual ordeal, makes the ACT an excellent example, in my opinion, of a non-magical rite of passage.

The Phi Theta Kappa membership (particularly if I have the opportunity to be formally inducted) is a slightly different rite of passage.  I was selected by a mysterious organization based on my academic performance, I made a sacrifice (again, money), and will be rewarded with certain signs that will set me apart from the larger student body and with access to information available only to initiates.

Interestingly, the Greek letters Phi Theta Kappa stand in this case, not for a motto, but for virtues – wisdom, aspiration and purity – and the group associates itself with Athena.  Fortunately, She was already on my list of deities for whom I required idols.

Source Review – the Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination.

Books on how to read Tarot cards are dime-a-dozen. (Figuratively, at least; Hermes help me, I wish they were cheaper.) Good books on the Tarot are fewer and further between, and most of them are associated with a particular deck – there are entire libraries, for example, dedicated to the Crowley&Harrison’s Thoth deck, alone. For a generalist book, though, you can hardly do better than this one.

Robert M. Place stand out from other Tarot writers, first and foremost, in that he can distinguish between myth and history. The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination actually has a chapter devoted to each. Unlike many authors, who subscribe to the mythical history wholesale, Place recognizes that the symbolism of the Major Arcana cannot be traced further back than Renaissance Italy, and goes to great length to prove his point, citing a number of studies and histories patently ignored by many in the New Age community, romantically attached as they are to the idea of ancient (even prehistoric) origins. He then goes on to describe and debunk the mythic history, showing where Levi and others invented the Tarot they needed, ultimately culminating in the well-known Waite-Smith deck.

From there, Place traces the individual symbols in many of the cards, providing a clear insight into their historical meanings and contexts. He describes the divinatory and symbolic meanings of the Waite-Smith illustrations (more commonly known as the Rider-Waite deck, a name which credits the corporate publishers over the female artist). He cites Waite and Smith’s memoirs, notes, and letters, giving us further insight into the origin of the modern Tarot deck.

Finally, he has a chapter on layouts, which – to my delight – overlooks the overused Celtic Cross and includes an expanded version of the Twelve Houses spread. It even starts with some general discussion of the theory behind various layouts.

Place, Robert M. the Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

A Classic Case of Cultural Misappropriation Misrepresented as Scholarship

I am taking a mythology class. First mistake: it’s an English/Literature class, not an Anthropology class. I should have known better.

The textbook, about which you will be hearing a great deal, is Myth and Knowing: An Introduction to World Mythology, by Scott Leonard and Michael McLure. There’s a lot of broad, systematic problems with the book from feminist, pagan, and various other angles (scholastic and otherwise), but here’s a nice and easy one.

The French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a short story entitled “Kali Beheaded”. It’s not a bad story (not great either … though I can’t say for sure since I can’t read the original French), but it’s just a story. Jyoti Panjawani has written an essay on the three Hindu stories that appear to have inspired “Kali Beheaded”.

Myth and Knowing misrepresents Yourcenar’s fiction as an actual Hindu myth of the divine femininea “modern adaptation of traditional materials (Leonard 157)”, as though all she’d done was adjust the formatting from lyric to prose and tweak the language for modern comprehention. No. That’s not what she did. It’s an utter fabrication, published elsewhere (rightly) not as anthropology but as her own goddamn original fiction.

This is officially the first in what will become a long series of posts about the epic fail that is this textbook.

A Brief, Rambling Argument For a Polytheist Universe

A religious scholar by the name of Stephen Prothero has recently put out a book denouncing the idea that “all gods are one God” and that “all religions are fundamentally the same”. I have not yet had the chance to read the book, but I have read the Boston Globe article he wrote which reiterates his thesis. There are problems with his thought process – not the least of which being that he seems to have limited his study to the post-Christian world – but we’ll leave those aside for the moment. What I’m really interested in is how this idea relates to neo-Pagan thea/ology

I do, incidentally, believe that the whole of the universe – energy, matter, humanity, life, non-life, divinity, ALL OF IT – are made up of the same basic stuff, and can be reduced to that sole common denominator. We are all, on a macro-cosmic level, One. Physics has codified this idea more clearly than mystics: E=mc^2, matter and energy are the same and can be converted back and forth between states. But let us not forget the equally important and true Law of Correspondence: “As above, so below. As below, so above.”

The material world is full of mind-boggling diversity. We have plants, animals, bacteria, all with radically different biological functions and reproductive strategies. We have minerals, gasses, and organic compounds, all of which are put together by the same sub-atomic forces, but which combine and interact in radically different and inconflatable ways.

Let’s do a little thought exercise.

All organic compounds include carbon. So do many gasses, actually. But what else is made of carbon? Let’s take diamonds and graphite: two allotropes of carbon. Both are made up of the same pure C2 molecule, but arranged in completely different ways: flat sheets of molecular carbon appear to us as a fine grey-black powder that we use as an electrical conductor or to make pencil “lead”; arranged in a particular lattice, by heat, pressure, and time, however, the same carbon molecules become a diamond.

Diamonds and graphite are made from pure carbon but are in NO WAY the same.

This is why, as a hard polytheist, I do not conflate “gods” or “the Divine” with “the Absolute”.

You and I, organic life forms that we are, are made up of a great deal of carbon. Are we made of diamonds? Pencil lead? No. That assertion is absurd.

This line of reasoning is directly contrary to (some) Wiccan and other New Age assertions, that all gods and goddesses are really masks of the Great God and the Great Goddess, facets of them.

Myself, I would argue the reverse: that the gods and spirits and people and plants and minerals and gasses and sub-atomic particles of the world are made up of bits and pieces that abstract Absolute. Or that, perhaps, the Absolute is made up of us. But this is NOT saying that we are, in fact, fundamentally the same.

All gods and goddesses and spirits and ghosts and souls and Powers are not One God. To say that they are is akin to saying that all straight men and straight women and intersexed folk and genderqueers of any sex and gay men and lesbian women and white people and black people and yellow people and brown people and red people and purple people are All One Straight White Guy Living in the Suburbs Outside Topeka.

Correspondences are relationships, not equivalencies.

A Few Introductory Thoughts on Tarot

Cartomancy, to the best of my understanding, lies somewhere between a technical skill and a psychic gift. One selects a deck by intuition, at random, or after careful study. Some bless or enchant their cards, others carefully nurture the spirit of a deck. Some favor traditional decks – true Tarot decks based on the Rider-Waite and Golden Dawn originals – others favor oracle cards whose artists have abandoned the five suit structure altogether. Some people I know have intense visionary and psychic experiences while working with divinatory cards, sometimes almost completely unrelated to the actual cards at hand; others, like myself, are more decoders of the symbols within the cards, occasionally assisted by strong intuition.

The traditional structure of a Tarot deck is of five suits: four lesser and one greater. The lesser suits associated with the ceremonial magician’s tools and with elemental power. Disks, Cups, Swords, and Wands. Earth, Water, Air, Fire. The suits have other names, of course, varying from deck to deck. Disks are known variously as Coins, Pentacles, or even simply Earth; Wands are sometimes Rods, Staves or just Fire; alternative names for Swords and Cups are rare, but not unheard of. The lesser suits are comprised of fourteen cards each:, most commonly known by the numbers and titles: ace through ten, page, knight, queen, and king. The fifth suit, the “Trumps” or “Major Arcana”, are a series of twenty-two ascending images and archetypes, originally from Renaissance Italian theology and popular culture (I don’t have the book on hand for a proper citation, but look to Robert Michael Place’s The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Interpretation) .

The suit of Disks – I favor the name “disks”, for whatever reason, though I recall that my first deck, the Hansen-Roberts, called them Coins – deals with the material world, material things, and material resources. Being associated with elemental earth, themes of fertility and fecundity are also found here. The suit of Cups deals chiefly with emotional attachments, memory, and romance. Being associated with elemental water, there are also some associations with psychic gifts and dreams. The suit of Wands deals with passion, glory, and drive. Frequently, this entails themes conflict, victory, and loss. The suit of Swords deals with suffering and torment. Being associated with elemental air, there are also associations with matters of intellect and understanding.

The major arcana is where the imagery of tarot cards get really, really interesting. It’s also where things begin to vary wildly between decks, as authors and illustrators embrace or discard the original Christian and Hermetic symbolism.

I’ve worked with four decks since I began my practice in 1996.

My first was the Hansen-Roberts deck, and Rider-Waite variant that moved a couple of the major arcana around (I can’t remember which ones, all these years later, and I’ve long since lost the original booklet that explained the decision; it may even be that they made the same moves as the Waite deck from the previous “traditional”, not instead of) and replaced the lackluster art with images that were infinitely more visually appealing, although symbolically similar if not identical. The deck developed a serious attitude over the years I used it, with a caustic voice to rival some (gentler) Thoth decks by the time I retired it. The deck was still in full working order, and I have it to this day, but at the age of 18 or 19 when I stopped reading the cards for a while, I simply couldn’t trust myself to read what the cards said, not what I wanted them to say.

The second is a Tarot deck only insomuch as it has the five suits. DJ Conway’s Shapeshifter deck owes more to the Thoth deck, I think, than the Rider-Waite, but softens the brutal voice of Crowley’s work with the fluffy-bunny attitude one rightly expects from Conway, with a dose of faux-shamanism and animal totem. The art and imagery are beautiful, drawing from that transformative/animal theme. If nothing else, I recommend it as a piece of art.

The third was the Robin Wood, another Rider-Waite variant, even more beautiful than the Hansen-Roberts. I purchased it when I resumed doing card work at about the age of 22. The deck was reliable, consistent, but unfortunately printed on slightly inferior paper, and I was forced to retire it when several of the cards became too badly damaged.

The fourth deck, my current deck, is one of two Art Nouveau decks I’ve found and purchsed, largely because they’re pretty. One of the two I will never use – the imagery is too sexist – but the one I am using has some interesting variations to the traditional themes. The images on the minor arcana are greatly simplified: a single man and woman, seemingly made out of stained glass, in a tableau depicting the theme of the card, with a different couple and color scheme for each suit. The major arcana is similar in meaning, but more modern in imagery and certain themes than older Rider-Waite based decks, and as I begin to explore the meanings of the Tarot, it is to this deck that I will refer most often and in greatest depth.