Dancers of magic: Loie Fuller

Aleister Crowley’s ritual Liber XV, The Gnostic Mass specifies that the priestess “moves in a serpentine manner involving 3½ circles of the Temple”. In their notes on the mass Helena and Tau Apiryon note that while some people refer to this movement as a “serpentine dance” the ritual does not specify dance or music here.

Since the actual path of the priestess is more or less serpent-like it’s clear that serpentine refers to the pattern she walks, not how she walks it. But why do we say “serpentine dance” so automatically? That’s down to Loie Fuller.

Fuller started her career as a “skirt dancer” (think can-can girl). She made the form uniquely her own in several ways. First she sewed wands into her costume; if you’re a belly dance fan you may have seen “Isis wings”, smaller replicas of Loie’s wands. Second, her costumes weren’t dresses as much as drapes, hundreds of yards hanging directly from her neck. Finally she developed a lighting system that threw color and images onto the fabric. It was startling, new, fabulous and completely modern. At the Folies Bergere Loie came to epitomize the Art Nouveau.

Anatole France describes Fuller as “a person of good mind and good heart, a soul somewhat inclined to mysticism, to philosophy, to religion, a very deep, a very cheerful and a very noble soul.” She may not have been a magician in the same sense as Florence Farr or Dion Fortune but she was very much concerned with magical ideas expressed in a performative way.

Fuller was interested in the effects of color. In her autobiography she describes her meeting with Camille Flammarion who experimented with the effects of colored light on plants. Fuller believed that color had a distinct impact. She says “colour so pervades everything that the whole universe is busy producing it, everywhere and in everything.”

At the turn of the century a few pioneering dancers rejected the formalism of ballet and sought a more natural turn of movement. Fuller was among the earliest to seek emotional expression in movement. “At present dancing signifies motions of the arms and the legs…the motion…is regulated rather by the time than by the spirit of the music.” In contrast, she argued, music “ought to indicate a form of harmony or an idea with instinctive passion.” The motion of the dance should mirror the sensations of the body and express sorrow, joy, surprise, hope.

Fuller combined the expressive emotion of dance with the emotional impact of color. Her combination of music, color, and billowing movement transported audiences and inspired artists of all kinds. She herself linked this to a religious feeling, describing the rapture she experienced when she waved a scarf in the light from stained glass windows in Notre Dame, the same rapture she experienced in the dance.

Here are a few representations of her work. The Lumiere Brothers captured her “serpentine dance” on film and laboriously hand-tinted the frames to capture the sense of color. The serpent-like movement is created by the swirling fabric.

Loie Fuller did not found a school of dance, however contemporary dancer Jody Sperling has revived her dance style. Sperling’s residency at University of Wyoming recreated Fuller’s performance piece “Ballet of Light”. This short film documents the process and records the complete performance (beginning at 20:58).

Fuller created a dance called “Fire”. Sperling re-imagined it here.

Sperling’s work extended the fire idea into a “Dance of the Elements”, including water, earth, air, and ether. Here is water.

Sperling’s Fuller-inspired interpretation of Clair de Lune is peaceful and ecstatic; it’s a breathtaking moment of beauty.

Fuller’s pioneering work laid the foundations for modern dance and paved the road that Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham would follow. She remains unique in her combination of music and color. She inspires me as a priestess to work with the meaning of gesture, sound and color to produce grace.

References
Fuller, Loie. “Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life: With Some Account of Her Distinguished Friends”. Boston: L.L. Maynard and Company, 1913. Web site: Google Books

Sperling, Jody. “Loie Fuller”. Dance Heritage 2012. Web site: Dance Heritage.

Photo credit: By Frederick Glasier – This image was uploaded from Shorpy.com, a photo-blog site specializing in vintage photography. Source url: 1641Shorpy.com host many images from public domain image repositories, including the Library of Congress. A high resolution version of this photograph may be available elsewhere., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2689845

Petition to Flora

Louise Abbéma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Hail Flora!
Lovely Goddess of the bloom,
garlanded with a thousand flowers,
grant that my flowers open in beauty,
avert the rusts which would blight them,
let them set seed and fruit and bloom again.

Via Wikimedia

How I Know I’m Not in a Cult


When I was twenty I spent a day and a night with the Moonies. The story begins on a street corner in San Francisco as my boyfriend and I came up from a BART exit wearing our backpacks and were snagged by a recruiter. It ends with us walking down a deserted country road in the middle of the night while a group of people chanted “choo choo choo, choo choo choo, yay yay pow!” after us. The highlight is when my boyfriend managed to snag a moment alone with me to say urgently, “We have to get out of here. Something’s wrong. These people smile all the time.”

The experience has made me a cult-watcher. I avidly devour books written by ex-members making daring escapes on buses and motorcycles, planning exit strategies with their families on burner cell phones.

I belong to Ordo Templi Orientis, I’m a member of a coven, I sometimes work with a Golden Dawn group. Some people describe any esoteric group as a cult. It takes more than a minority spiritual belief to earn the title though. Cults take your money, your choices, your family and your time. The trouble is people get sucked into groups only to wake up years later realizing they’ve been had. So how can I tell that I’m not being strung along right now?

Here’s how I know:

  • I can read criticism and not feel as if I’m waking up. No one thinks less of me for reading criticism of the group or engaging in criticism myself.
  • I’m not a true believer. I don’t think my spiritual path is the best in the world, just the one that’s right for me. I don’t think the groups I belong to are perfect. I don’t feel like I’m saving the world.
  • No one tells me who to marry, who my friends are, or asks me to cut people out of my life if they leave the group.
  • They don’t ask for my money. I pay annual dues to O.T.O. – I also pay annual dues to the AARP, PMI, ACLU, and other organizations.

Also, the other people in my magical groups have a normal range of emotions. They get mad, they celebrate successes, they mourn losses. They’re not constantly angry and, the spookiest affect of all, they’re not smiling all the time.

The mission of my writing

I am a writer with a mission. All my books have a purpose. They form a story arc and contribute to the overall theme. That mission is to re-vision Western magic.

That sounds pretty grand, and maybe it is! I’ve been living with the idea so long that it seems natural to me. I had the very early experience of being handed a belief system which I rejected. My mother raised me in the Catholic church but I left the faith when I was twelve. My father had exposed me to the wide world of spiritual ideas and I knew that I wasn’t meant to be Christian.

When I was sixteen I bought my first book on Witchcraft and felt as if I had come home. I read “once a Witch, always a Witch” and I believed that fervently. As I approached my first degree initiation I thought, well, if I wasn’t a Witch in a previous life, I was making the commitment now!

The initiation opened a world of mystery to me. I was introduced to the powers of the elements and the Goddess and God of the Craft. I felt as if I had passed through a door and walked in an entirely new world.

That initiation also left me with doubt. An idea nibbled at the back of my mind. Something was off kilter here. I had a nagging sense that there was something wrong, but I couldn’t articulate what it was. The voice of guidance told me that something here needed reform.

I formed the first true bond of my adult life when I met Alex. He practiced Ceremonial Magic. We traded notes – he taught me his kind of magic and I taught him mine. With Ceremonial Magic I had an even stronger sense that the system needed reform. The majesty and precision of ritual drew me powerfully but it also seemed that it was designed partly to keep me out. As a woman I seemed to be pushed into a role that didn’t fit me. Why wouldn’t that be true? After all the culture at large created the box “woman” that confined me to some roles I didn’t want and shut me out of other roles that fit me better. I didn’t want to have children or raise a family. I wanted to devote myself to the life of the mind, the artist’s life.

When I started my current books I envisioned it as a four-part series: The Practical Magician, The Woman Magician, The Pagan Magician, and The Sex Magician.

Practical Magic for Beginners lays the foundation for the work. I am a Western Witch and Magician working within the tradition. The spiritual work grounds in the material world. You have to have a place to stay, food to eat, family and friends to support you, and health in order to launch into the stratosphere of spiritual life.

Donyae Coles recently interviewed me and commented that Practical Magic isn’t a typical collection-of-spells kind of work. It sets out to explain the underpinning of magic. I loved that she caught that, it’s an important part of what I am doing, to put the tools of magic in everyone’s hands so we can all make the magic that works for us.

The Woman Magician tackles the subject of being a woman and doing magic that is centered on my own life and experience. It’s really an extended meditation on gender. As I talk about the work I find that the category “woman” really includes all the “not-male” genders; people who are not comfortable with the binary are drawn to women’s events and to my work.

For the Love of the Gods is the first installment in the “Pagan Magician” series. I trace the connection between ourselves and our ancestors, claiming our history. It is also important that we acknowledge and begin to undo the history of colonialization. Our magic roots in the wisdom of ancient Egypt/Kemet and was created by black people.

I’m currently working on the next installment of the “Pagan Magician”. The working title is “Soul and Cosmos”. Our magic descends directly from the work of the Neo-Platonic philosopher-magicians. They understood the soul to be on a journey to become more and more good and reconnect with our divine origins.

While each book stands alone, they also form building blocks for a new way of experiencing traditional magic, one that acknowledges and equally values all genders and all races and ethnicities. Magic only works for one of us when it works for all of us. Giving voice to that understanding is the mission I am on.

What Does the Stele of Revealing Reveal About Reincarnation?

By ILAOSVSen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By ILAOSVSen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By ILAOSVSen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When Crowley saw this object he did not immediately recollect an image of a past life. His identification with the priest of the stele emerged as the entity Aiwass dictated to him Liber al vel Legis, the Book of the Law. Chapter I says:

35. This that thou writest is the threefold book of Law.
36. My scribe Ankh-af-na-khonsu, the priest of the princes, shall not in one letter change this book…

Crowley was the scribe, so he must have been Ankh-f-n-khonsu. He was familiar with the doctrine of reincarnation through his studies with fellow Golden Dawn member Alan Bennett, who shared his extensive knowledge of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures.

Buddhism seems to have come to Egypt about the time of Alexander the Great, several centuries after the death of Ankh-f-n-khonsu. There were Buddhist temples in the city of Alexandria, and reincarnation was a doctrine known to the philosophers of that city. As an English gentleman with a classical education Crowley studied those works of the Alexandrian philosophers which survived through time.

Reincarnation was not a doctrine known to Ankh-f-n-khonsu himself. In Kemetic/Egyptian religion, the soul did not leave the body and then return in a different body. Instead, ritual performed after death united several parts of the soul in a new spiritual-material form which travelled from the land of the dead to the land of the living every day, just as the sun did. The deceased was anchored to the living world by a mummified body, or by an image of the person while alive, or even by the rememberance of their name.

Thelemites visiting the Cairo Museum in 2004 found a mummy labelled Ankh-f-n-khonsu. This mummy was intended to secure the eternal life of that person. Similarly, the funerary stele of Ankh-f-n-khonsu was intended to give him a virtual tomb within which to rest and provide him the eternal food piled on the offering table. He is still with us. He is still there. We know where he is, physically in the holdings of the Cairo Museum, calling his united soul forth by day to travel with the sun back to the land of the living.

So when Ankh-f-n-khonsu stands in the body of Aleister Crowley to view his own funerary stele, we’ve jumped worldviews. Has something gone wrong? Did the religious ritual, the magic, of the funerary stele fail?

Science tells us that the mind dies with the body, and treats both Kemetic and Buddhist thought as forms of wishful thinking to stave off the fear of the end of material existence. Catholic theology resembles Kemetic more closely than Buddhist, holding that the soul inhabits a realm after death (Heaven, Hell or Purgatory), and that at the end of days the soul will return to Earth to be reunited with its physical body, now made eternal. Nearly everyone in the English speaking world is familiar with all these competing conceptions of life after death and we are accustomed to knowing several views which contradict each other.

We may decide to simply inhabit both worldviews, granting Ankh-f-n-khonsu his eternal life while simultaneously granting Aleister Crowley as a reincarnation of that priest. We may decide that the Egyptian worldview was in error and that Ankh-f-n-khonsu discovered this upon his next rebirth. We may craft a sophisticated theological response which would divide the soul, one part to engage in its journey with the sun, another to be reborn in a succession of human bodies.

In The Gnostic Mass, Annotations and Commentary, Helena and Tau Apiryon note that Crowley as Ankh-f-n-khonsu was the living prophet of the Aeon of Horus, and that the stele has an oracular connection to the reception of the Book of the Law and the Law of Thelema. This transformation renewed the energies of ancient Egypt in the pattern of aeonic evolution.

However we frame the transformation, what is certain is that Crowley repurposed the stele. Instead of anchoring the travels of the soul from the realm of the dead to the living, it anchors the spiritual awakening of the Book of the Law. The image of Nut becomes Nuit, the star goddess; the solar disk becomes Hadit; Re-Horakhty becomes Ra-Hoor-Khuit. The stele itself is reproduced in physical form and sits on top of the altar during the Gnostic Mass, an altar which reproduces the structure of the cosmos.

There is an overtone of colonialism here. Crowley benefitted from the power and privilege of the British empire; he didn’t question his right to appropriate the image of the stele for his own purposes. When I viewed the stele in the Cairo museum in 2008, the only other person in the room was a young woman wearing a hijab; she was kneeling on the floor painting the stele on a papyrus sheet, and fled on my arrival before I could speak to her. This was a cross-cultural encounter with colonialist implications – my religious experience was her cultural heritage, which she was practicing to sell back to tourists like me.

However, her cultural heritage was not her religious experience, and my religious experience was conducted privately in a non-religious context. Our sacred object is the museum’s physical property. Egypt is an Islamic country, and while tourism is a critical industry, it is tourism limited to admiring objects in a cultural or scientific framework. When the Temple of Thelema became aware the stele had been removed in 2011, members warned each other not to query the museum’s authorities and alert them that this object has meaning to us, implying a fear that the museum may choose to lock it out of sight permanently.

Since the Gnostic Mass requires the stele as part of the altar equipment, and since the stele is so important to Thelema, several artists sell full and partial size reproductions. Both sides of the stele are reproduced in The Equinox Vol. I No. VII, and people often photocopy these and paste them onto foamboard or wood. O.T.O. Eire has made available Cathryn Orchard’s line drawing in black and white for individuals to color in themselves, for learning, and as an act of devotion.

Whatever our reason for reproducing the stele, the image lives on, and the name of Anhk-f-n-khonsu is remembered thousands of years after his death, a form of immortality the stele was meant to ensure. Viewed in that light the magic has been wildly successful.

Read more:
Temple of Thelema public discussion, The Stele of Revealing has been moved.
Kaczynski, Richard, Ph.D. (2002). 0 Comments/by

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Was Aleister Crowley a Witch?

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons
Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Gardner’s version of his meeting with Crowley

Gerald Gardner met Aleister Crowley in the last year of his life. We know that Crowley initiated Gardner into the O.T.O. and issued him a charter to form an O.T.O. camp. There are persistent stories that the initiatory currents went both ways – not only was Gardner an O.T.O. initiate, but Crowley was a Witch.

Gardner was introduced to Crowley by Arnold Crowther. Crowther’s widow Patricia told Heselton that Crowley had seemed knowledgeable about Witchcraft but wasn’t interested in rituals led by a High Priestess because he “wasn’t the sort to be bossed around by women”. Heselton quotes additional details Gardner provided about that first meeting to John Symonds: “He was very interested in the witch cult, and had some idea of combining it w. the Order, but nothing came of it.”

Gardner also wrote to Cecil Williamson that Crowley was “in the Cult” but found the nudity distasteful, although he highly approved of the Great Rite. Gardner also claimed that Crowley didn’t want to have to kneel to a High Priestess. Heselton immediately quotes sources who find this unlikely. How unlikely is apparent to anyone who has seen a Gnostic Mass in which the priest kneels before the nude (if she chooses) priestess on the altar.

Gardner’s biographer Phillip Heselton concludes that Crowley may have said something offhand about knowing about Witchcraft as a form of one-upmanship in his first meeting with Gardner.

Pickingill Brothers

There is however another source of stories about Crowley and Witchcraft. In the 1970s W.E. (Bill) Liddell published a series of articles which he claimed were written by pre-Gardnerian Witches who wished to remain anonymous. Liddell himself claimed both Gardnerian and Hereditary initiations, making him a bridge between the two worlds. The articles discussed the activities of George Pickingill, 1816 – 1909, a Witch in a hereditary line eight centuries old who founded nine covens in Canewdon in Essex. In 1994 Michael Howard assembled these articles in The Pickingill Papers, The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft.

In “Gerald Gardner and his Detractors” Liddell (or the anonymous Witch) claims that Allan Bennett was one of Pickingill’s pupils. Bennett was both a member of the Golden Dawn and a Buddhist and Crowley’s first teacher in these spiritual paths. The article claims Bennett passed a third spiritual practice to Crowley – Witchcraft. Bennett introduced Crowley to one of Pickingill’s nine covens. Crowley received the Second Rite in Hereditary Witchcraft but was rapidly expelled; however he used the material he received in later rituals.

Liddell’s story goes on: this means that when Crowley met Gardner the two men discovered they not only shared Masonry but initiation into Pickingill covens. Crowley reproduced from memory the book of Witchcraft rituals he had received from his initiators and this material was one of the sources Gardner used in creating his books. When Crowley affiliated Gardner into O.T.O, Gardner reciprocated by inducting Crowley into Gardnerian Craft.

There is no documentation to substantiate any of these stories. Heselton notes that Ronald Hutton discounts all the stories of Crowley’s involvements with Witchcraft on the grounds that there is no mention of this in his diaries.

It is interesting that the Liddell articles equally disapprove of Crowley, Gardner, and Pickingill! The Hereditary Craft “brethren” purporting to write this material condemn Pickingill’s rejection of Christianity, Gardner’s insistence on nudity and the power of the priestess, and Crowley’s overt sexuality.

Fellow Travelers

I’m not seriously suggesting that Crowley was an initiated Witch; surely we would have heard about it from him rather than anonymous sources if the rumors were true. What I find interesting is that Crowley’s and Gardner’s work have so much in common. They were English gentlemen and Masons. Both rejected Christianity and explored numerous magical and spiritual paths – Crowley was a Golden Dawn initiate and a Buddhist, Gardner was a Rosicrucian and a Druid. Both were inducted into existing magical groups, Gardner into Witchcraft, Crowley into O.T.O. Both rewrote the rituals they were given and placed an indelible stamp on that spiritual path. Gardnerian Witchcraft is the most widely known and practiced form of Witchcraft in the world. O.T.O. is governed by Aleister Crowley’s foundational writings and performs his initiatory and sacramental rituals.

They knew each other and supported each other’s visions. They share the same critics too. The persistent stories that Crowley wrote Gardnerian rituals or himself used hereditary Witchcraft rituals in his own work are not historical fact, they are disproved or unproved, but are interesting because they point to the consonance of the two men’s work.

Read more:

Prayer to Hermes for effective speech

We all face times when it is important for us to be heard and to be believed. At those times I turn to Hermes who the Greeks called “friendliest of the gods to people”. He was known to the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, medieval Europe, straight through to today where he continues to be a lively presence in the world.

Times you might call on Hermes:

  • A job interview
  • Appearing in court
  • Proposing marriage
  • Negotiating an agreement

I call on him every morning before I start my round of petition signing and phone calls!

This working can be as elaborate or simple as you like. You can make an altar with a statue of Hermes , light a candle, and write out what you want by hand. Or you can pull up an image on your computer and type the result you want. Hermes is at home on the internet!

Prayer to Hermes

Hail Hermes,
Graceful god,
Friend to the people and guide.
Hear the words I speak and aid me.
Let my words be received,
Let my message be believed,
Let my speech make the change I seek,
Bring me success.
Friend to the people and guide,
I honor you and thank you.

Offering: you can offer incense, candle flame, simple food like bread and drink like water, milk or wine. You can also post about him and bring his image and power to others.

How do you make offerings to Hermes?

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Was Gerald Gardner head of the O.T.O.?

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons
Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Aleister Crowley from Wikimedia Commons

Many Witches are unaware how deeply involved Gerald Gardner was with Ordo Templi Orientis. How Gardner came to think of himself of head of the O.T.O. in Europe, however briefly, shines a light on Gardner’s wide contacts in the esoteric communities, the last days of Aleister Crowley’s life, and the chaos caused by the Second World War.

Seventy years after the end of World War II we have forgotten how violently it disrupted life in Europe and England. Nazis imprisoned and killed not only Jews but many other targeted groups, including O.T.O. members. Karl Germer, second in command of the Order, was sent to a Nazi concentration camp precisely because of his O.T.O. leadership. By the end of the war the only functioning O.T.O. group was Agape Lodge in southern California, well away from the front lines.

Crowley lived through the bombing of London but was ultimately forced out of the city. Eventually he settled in a haunted Victorian guest house called Netherwood in the medieval port town of Hastings. He knew his health was fading and keenly felt the obligation to assure continuity of leadership of O.T.O. He was greatly relieved to learn that Germer survived the war. However, worried about Germer’s age and health, Crowley cast about for additional leaders to succeed Germer after his death.

Among the visitors to Netherwood was Grady McMurtry, an American ordnance officer stationed in England, as well as a first degree initiate from Agape Lodge. McMurtry became Crowley’s student. Eventually Crowley appointed him representative of O.T.O. in America and issued him emergency authorization to take charge of the Order should it ever be necessary.

Gardner meets Crowley

Gerald Gardner also met Crowley at Hastings. The two Masons apparently hit it off. Crowley affiliated Gardner into the O.T.O. based on his Masonic membership. Heselton pieced together interviews with people who knew Gardner and Crowley to contextualize what appears to have happened. The O.T.O. in England had dwindled to just a few people, and Crowley was in ill health, so it wasn’t possible to mount an elaborate initiation as we do today. Crowley and another O.T.O. initiate probably performed the Minerval initiation, and then Crowley “read through” Gardner to the subsequent grades. Gardner did pay the going rate for the VII, and Heselton and Kaczynski both settle on VII as his likely degree.

Charter to form an O.T.O. camp

In 1947 there were O.T.O. initiates in the U.K. but there was no functioning body. Crowley wrote to a contact that a new camp was forming and London candidates for initiation should be referred to Gardner. It is clear that Crowley had issued Gardner a charter to initiate and to form an encampment. A charter does exist and is currently in the possession of Allen Greenfield.

The charter however does not appear to have been written by Crowley – it is not in his handwriting and the language is not correct. Heselton concludes that Crowley probably scribbled something and Gardner prepared a more official looking document himself. Is the signature on the document Crowley’s? He might have signed it, or Gardner could have copied the signature from the original.

Who gets the papers?

Gardner traveled to America that winter and was still there when Crowley died on December 1, 1947. What was Gardner’s standing after Crowley’s death? Lady Frieda Harris wrote to Karl Germer in January calling Gardner the head of the Order in Europe. A few weeks after Crowley died, Gardner wrote to the owner of Netherwood, Vernon Symonds, identifying himself as the head of the O.T.O. in Europe and asking for any papers Crowley had left. Heselton believes that Gardner was interested in preserving Crowley’s papers and making sure they did not fall into the wrong hands.

In the event Karl Germer succeeded Crowley as Outer Head of the Order and did receive most of the materials from his estate. Grady McMurtry represented O.T.O. in America, and Gerald Gardner was sorted out as head of the O.T.O. in the U.K.

Gardner chooses Witchcraft

Gardner returned to England in March 1948. On his return he did not continue the work of setting up an O.T.O. camp. Crowley had referred candidates for initiation to Gardner, but Gardner wrote later that these candidates had been sent away by the army or lived at some distance so he was unable to bring them into the Order. At that point he was 63 and cited ill health among the reasons he did not pursue setting up the camp. Heselton notes:

He was far from being a bright young spark ready to take over and revitalize a moribund O.T.O. but an ailing and aging asthmatic who was set in his ways and, when it came to it, unwilling and unable to give the level of commitment that such a post demanded.

Instead, Gardner focused his energies on promoting, preserving, and publishing information about Witchcraft. We know him today as the person who brought Witchcraft out into the open, inspiring a religious revival that has grown into a worldwide movement.

Gerald Gardner himself explored Thelema but chose Witchcraft as his life’s work. His involvement demonstrates as clearly as anything can that these are compatible paths.

Read more:

O.T.O. initiate Richard Kaczynski minutely surveys Crowley’s life in Perdurabo, while initiated Gardnerian Phillip Heselton traces Gerald Gardner’s life in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.

The Best Devotional Method

Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been doing devotionals to deities for several decades. When I started it was difficult to find instructions on how to do it. My working group (Coven of the Mystical Merkabah) invented a method we call the temple-research feedback loop: study the deity, go into temple, use what you’ve learned to refine your research. In recent years as true polytheism has gained traction a number of Pagans have discussed their approaches to making offerings and dedicating to a particular deity. For my money though the most complete, detailed, and sophisticated description of the devotional method is Liber Astarte.

I mentioned this work in my book on theurgy For the Love of the Gods but it deserves a more detailed look. The full name of the book is Astarte vel Liber Berylli sub figura CLXXV (175), subtitled “On uniting oneself to a Deity.” It fits into Thelema and the Golden Dawn system as “Philosophus” work, which means that the operator will have had some training and practice in basic magical skills. This is not intended to be the first thing you ever do when starting down a magical path! It’s a more advanced operation, a way to deepen your understanding of a deity and yourself. At the very least the operator will know how to ground and center, how to set up a protected working space, and have some experience calling deity into a candle or a temple.

Liber Astarte does need some translating. In the Pagan Mysticism blog post Liber Astarte R.M. McGrath notes a couple of things that make it a tough read today. First, it’s written in “Thelemic jargon”, Edwardian English with Crowley’s inimitable style. Those of us who read a lot of Crowley get so used to the dialect that it hardly registers; it’s like attending a Shakespearean play, about fifteen minutes into the experience the language suddenly becomes comprehensible. Crowley is a bit flowery until you get used to him.

Here’s an example. Crowley says:

1. Considerations before the Threshold. First concerning the choice of a particular Deity. This matter is of no import, sobeit that thou choose one suited to thine own highest nature. Howsoever, this method is not so suitable for gods austere as Saturn, or intellectual as Thoth. But for such deities as in themselves partake in anywise of love it is a perfect mode.

Translation: to start with pick any deity, preferably a love deity.

Why a love deity? A Philosophus is doing work associated with the planet Venus, the divine force of love. Starting with a love deity fits in well with the system of Thelema which is based on the love of humans for each other and the love of the divine. Love deities are in general friendly to humans and less likely to make difficult demands than, say, a war deity. Ultimately every deity has every aspect, Aphrodite is also a warrior and Ares is also a lover, but Aphrodite isn’t usually wearing battle armor. We’re looking for a deity whose primary being is focused on love.

McGrath also balks at Liber Astarte’s elaborate recommendations. For example, Crowley directs the practitioner to write a seven-fold prayer and repeat it daily. Certainly it’s possible to do that, but it also works to approach the deity with simple heartfelt words. Similarly the practitioner could perform the invocations for “nine days by seven” or “seven years by nine”, or for a week, month, year, or lifetime. The important thing here is to do the work for however long it is relevant to us.

Understanding that we can translate Crowley’s recommendations to fit the constraints of modern life, his framework is quite thorough. The technique:

  • Choose a deity.
  • Find or make an image. Set up an altar.
  • Make appropriate offerings. This will require research! You can use Qabbalistic correspondences if possible, or figure out what the ancients used. For example the Orphic Hymns specify types of incense for each deity.

Crowley actually says this whole operation doesn’t have to be too complicated. “Likewise with his robes and instruments, his suffumigations and libations: for his Robe hath he not a nightdress; for his instrument a walking stick; for his suffumigation a burning match; for his libation a glass of water?” That is, use what you’ve got!

That’s the first level. Going deeper into devotional, the practitioner can devote every waking moment and conscious act to the deity – eating, sleeping, working, everything we do. Next the operator brings the whole operation internal, making body and mind the temple in which the invocation occurs. Crowley says this in section 17 and it’s easy to skip over, but this is actually a profound shift in the emphasis of the work. This is the action that moves the operation from religious devotional to theurgic invocation. We meet the deities in their images and statues, but more importantly we meet them in ourselves.

Crowley’s later notes discuss how to evaluate the success of the work, describing signs of failure, signs of false success, and then what success actually feels like. Once success has been achieved it is possible to use the connection with deity to consecrate talismans, travel astrally (“Rising on the Planes”), or perform a play enacting the deity’s presence in the world. The goal is union with the deity which is ineffable and is its own reward.

Crowley gives a few cautionary notes. It’s common for an operator to be swept away with the power of the deity and proclaim that deity as the most important in the world, a mistake to be avoided. Also this operation is not the operation of Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. Crowley warns the operator not to engage in mortifications, not to withdraw from the world, and not to withdraw affection from family and friends. This is a household devotional which should fit into everyday life.

The book ends, “And so may the love that passeth all Understanding keep your hearts and minds…” Crowley reminds us that devotional is about love – our love for deity, the love of deity for us, and the ways in which that love enriches our families and our lives. Liber Astarte’s approach to devotional is a lovely method and worth the time to explore.

Research notes: Dark Places of Wisdom


Peter Kingsley’s book In the Dark Places of Wisdom is a story. It’s a scholarly work making a serious point but Kingsley sweeps away the academic apparatus and banishes notes to the end of the book. He writes in a strikingly simplistic style. It’s a conversational narrative, parceling out information in small bits and retracing ideas. It focuses on Parmenides and his visionary poem “On Nature”. Kingsley describes the poem’s style as incantory, invoking a trance state. Through his stylistic choices it seems this is also what Kingsley means his own book to do.

The story challenges scholastic traditions which center civilization on Athens. This is a guiding theme for Kingsley and an important point. I think in the case of this book it’s a bit of a distraction – it points back at the rational mind which the prose is working to bypass. Parmenides’ insights are interesting enough on their own.

Velia vs. Plato

Phocaea was a Greek city on the coast of Anatolia. In the sixth century BCE the Phocaeans sailed to Italy and founded the city of Elea, now called Velia. Ongoing excavations at the site of Velia throw some light on Parmenides, born there in 501, and his successor Zeno who was a decade younger.

Zeno famously preferred Velia to Athens. Parmenides and Zeno travelled to Athens as Velian ambassadors. Kingsley indicates that Zeno died running weapons to opponents of Athens. Athens won the war and the Athenian versions of history have swamped the stories of Velia.

The Athenian philosopher Plato joked that Xenophanes was Parmenides’ teacher. Plato’s successor Aristotle took the joke as fact and passed it on. Diogenes Laertius in “Lives of the Philosophers” says this isn’t true, Parmenides learned from Ameinias, a Pythagorean. Parmenides built Ameinias a hero shrine on his death.

Plato joked about killing Parmenides. Kingsley argues that Plato’s dialogue Parmenides slanders the philosopher to discredit him, a virtual killing. By killing Parmenides Plato created the west we inhabit today, one in which mind is estranged from body and philosophy is not wisdom but argument. Plato sought light in light and rejected the descent into darkness, leaving a spiritual hollow.

Priest and healer

Kingsley argues that Parmenides was an ouliades and Iatromantis, healer-priest of Apollo, and a physikos, a philosopher-healer. He founded a line of healers, adopting Zeno as his son and successor in an initiatory rite.

When Pythagoras left Samos for Italy he took Anatolian traditions with him, including the incubation chamber. Kingsley says the Pythagorean healers of southern Italy guided through incubation. In temples patients were placed in dark chambers to be healed through dreaming. The healers themselves underwent incubation. In this incubation patients and priests descended into the dark underworld. Kingsley describes this as a shamanic practice. He says, “Objects and inscriptions have also been found that show a continuity of shamanic tradition stretching all the way from the boundaries of Greece across Asia to the Himalayas and Tibet, Nepal and India.”

Apollo himself was originally a god of incubation. He became a sun god in Anatolia about the time of Parmenides. This revelation was described in esoteric terms as if it was an initiatory secret.

Through incubation Pythagoreans reached stillness, hesychia. Parmenides learned this practice from Ameinias.

Orpheus

Kingsley draws parallels between Parmenides and Orpheus, also a priest of Apollo. An early poem fragment has Orpheus staying near a volcano (light in depths) in an incubation chamber, casting his descent into the underworld as a healing dream. Orpheus used Apollo’s magic incantations to visit queen of Dead.

Kingsley says “For centuries people have been upset with Parmenides because he wrote a poem.” Philosophers are supposed to speak in the clear. Kingsley himself admires the quality of the poetry. Repeated words have an incantory effect. Repetition, Kingsley says, is the voice of our spiritual longing.

Kingsley says Parmenides’ insight was that Apollo shares his oracle with Night. The sleep of incubation is healing; the touch of the goddess of death can also heal. Priests of Apollo are priests of Persephone.

On Nature as initiation

Kingsley interprets Parmenides’ poem as a description of a visionary descent into the underworld. Parmenides travels with the daughters of the sun to the place where the sun lives – that is, the underworld, where the sun emerges each day and retreats each night. He passes through a gate guarded by Justice. He is welcomed by the goddess who greets him kindly, offering her right hand. Kingsley places Parmenides in the context of his place and time. Vases from southern Italy portray three figures: a hero, often Heracles; the guide, Justice; and Persephone reaching her right hand to the hero in welcome. On Nature describes that image. Kingsley argues that Parmenides’ goddess is Persephone.

The goddess tells Parmenides that he is not yet dead. This descent is a dying-in-life, an initiation. Parmenides is a kouros, which here does not mean young man but initiate. The goddess is kourotrophos, the nurse of the young and guide to initiates. The journey describes Pythagorean opposites: male-female, light-dark, heaven-earth, day-night. Wherever Parmenides journeys he sees goddesses, he travels in the female world of darkness.

The snake and the sun

The sound that draws Parmenides on his journey is the sound made by a syrinx, a wind instrument that makes a hissing sound, like a snake. Parmenides describes the gate which opens for him as spinning in hollow tubes or “pipes”. These pipes are also described in the Mithras Liturgy where they lead the magician to the sun. The Mithras Liturgy instructs the magician to hiss like a snake, making the noise of the pipe.

Apollo is associated with snakes. When he kills snake at Delphi he buries her under the ground, Kingsley says to absorb and appropriate her oracular power. Apollo’s son Asclepius the healer appeared in a hissing of snakes. (I know from other reading that snakes were used by Asclepian priests in incubation chambers). A play enacted at Delphi portrayed the young Apollo, the kouros/initiate, as killing the snake. The play ended with the playing of the syrinx, making the sound of the snake which was also the sound of the sun.

The lawgiver – healer

The Sicilian poet Empedocles passed on the tradition that the four vocations closest to divine are prophet, poet, healer and lawgiver. Kingsley argues that we need to understand Parmenides as a lawgiver like those Plato described in the Republic. The Iatromantis (healer) is a lawgiver because “to give good laws to a city is to heal it.” Justice is healing.

Kingsley says that philosopher initiates are lawgivers, “not just any kind of lawgiver but lawgivers who are prophets, who’ve received their laws from another world.” (That gives me pause – we hear the same argument from Christian fundamentalists that their laws come from another world, which never turns out well for women.)

The male journey

I note that Kingsley describes the priest, initiate, prophet, philosopher, lawgiver all as male. He calls the recipient of the Mithras Liturgy the “son” of the teacher even though the script itself addresses the daughter. He mentions in passing that women were in charge of Demeter-Persephone temples but did not write (or their writings did not survive) so we know about them only from the archaeological record.

Kingsley points out that Apollo becomes a lawgiver through killing the snake and appropriating her oracular power. We know that Zeus becomes a lawgiver through eating the goddess of wisdom, Metis. I’m weary of male initiates turning into male lawgivers through appropriating women’s knowledge and power. Where is the Justice in that?

Input into my work

Kingsley points to the Pythagorean tradition which was eclipsed by the Platonic. This is an important and necessary work. It is also firmly in the tradition which casts the male youth as journeyer/initiate and the female companions as aids to the male journey. As a woman initiate undertaking my own journey I am not included in that portrait. My calling is not to embody the goddess so a man can realize his work, it is to realize my own work as a woman magician without having to imagine myself as a man to do it.

As a next step we can unearth the Pythia, bring Metis back to the light of day, and restore the woman as lawgiver. Our times seem especially to call for this. Persephone in the underworld calls to mind an earlier goddess Ereshkigal. In the oldest story it was a goddess, Inanna, who journeyed to the underworld. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying explores myths of descent as healing stories.

Kingsley’s work is an important first step toward restoring the healing power of darkness. The full restoration lies in recasting the journey not as a male journey but a human one.

Quotes

p. 6: “…if we want to grow up, become true men and women, we have to face death before we die.”
p. 9: “…even our tomorrows are the past acting itself out.”
P. 96: “…death is the place where all words come from…”
p. 164: “There were early philosophers – and Parmenides was one of them – who were quite specific about one point. This is the fact that everything is alive and death is just a name for something we don’t understand.”