A few years ago I went to a magical conference having heard about this fantastic event populated by proper magicians in a spectacular location. I say proper magicians because I’m drawing the difference between magicians and the sort of people you get at many other ‘pagan’ events where the goddess phenomenon seems to have taken over completely.
This is a post that I wrote for their forum after my second visit. That visit left me a bit disappointed. I’ve published it here because I found the notes for the post while I was cleaning out some old files from my PC. I’ve tried to remove any direct references to the event (no names, no pack drill) as I want this to be a more general comment on the state of ceremonial magick today but the experience leaves me with some good examples of how things might be going wrong. After I posted this on their forum some members posted some valid reasons for using that temple as a lounge and I sort of understood, but other responses were less constructive and more unwelcoming of criticism; still, each to their own. The organisers may have resolved some of these issues as I’ve not spoken to them since but my point is about the way magick is going generally and that point still remains.
When I first went to the conference I hoped to find serious magick practised by people with experience and a care for the outcome. For years I’ve attended rituals where there seems to be little thought about structure with some consideration of symbolism but not applied in a way to have any real impact. Further, since the advent of magick that is less hidebound than it was 50 or 100 years ago there seems to be lots of rituals where magick is treated so lightly that it simply isn’t magick any more. Simply put, the magick seems to have been thrown out with the holy water.
So in 2009 my girlfriend and I went to this conference with high expectations. When we arrived we were not put off by the cold castle (as it was promoted) that was really a fortified house built for the shooting parties of the landed gentry converted into a school/prison camp/whatever, because it was still a really cool place even if the castle bit was slightly over sold. We were not put off by the uncomfortable beds and scruffy, draughty interiors. We were not put off by the spiders falling on the two of us while we were trying to have a shag. We were not even put off by the 600 mile round trip. We were certainly not put off by the ticket price with excellent, all inclusive food and great fellowship.
At the end of that first weekend someone asked us what was our high point. My girlfriend had to stop me half way through my response when I was about to say it was our trip to Steel Rigg on Hadrian’s Wall. (Honestly, if you have never been to Steel Rigg, you have to go some time, even in the rain. In fact the wind and rain might actually make it better so long as you are dressed for it.) Her concern was that my high point was something that was nothing to do with the conference, but that was true. So I smiled nicely and gave a diplomatic response and said something polite about the venue, or the food, or the effort the organisers make to get it all together. However, I couldn’t bring myself to praise the rituals so I said nothing about them.
I made the 600 mile round trip for the rituals; I went for the magick; I went for the magicians; I went for the people. However, I was disappointed, not by the people, but by the way the people treated the magick that is the very reason for my being.
In 2011 I went again, actually because of the castle/food/spiders on the ceiling/600 mile drive/great food at Tebay motorway services/getting lost in the corridors/spending time around the wonderful open fire. I went for all that. However, on that visit I didn’t go for the magick. My expectations of quality magick have diminished over the years and I’ve become a bit cynical about it.
You see I’m a bit tired of so called rituals where we make a noise that somebody just thought up and wave vaguely in the direction of north/south/your spirit/your genitals /etc. That’s not a ritual, that’s something that is the same as music and movement from when I was in primary school. Why is that not a ritual? It’s not a ritual because it has no gnosis.
The state of mind that the term gnosis describes, as I understand it as someone who hasn’t read Liber YXZ, is an altered state that breaks (or thins) the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind. It may break other barriers too but if it does that much I’m happy enough.
Since the seventies there have been movements in magick to move away from the hidebound ceremonial approach. The ceremonial approach generates gnosis by its very nature with repetition and the comfort of familiarity, formality and reverence. That’s why the Gnostic Mass is such a great ritual, as is a royal wedding, like it or not. It’s what the big structured religions are so good at and probably why they have so many followers. Simply put, grand ceremony has impact and impact means that the event touches the observer in some way. Other traditional approaches use emotional tension, apprehension, fear, sex, etc. Modern forms of magick now embrace other forms of gnosis. Rule breaking or experimental magick has come into existence, once described as running barefoot in the head. So now we have gnosis from humour (difficult to manage but powerful so long as it’s not forced), and other forms that would have been sacrilegious 100 years ago.
They tried to use humour at the conference. Now to use humour you don’t have to be Stephen Fry, but it certainly helps. To make a situation funny on the spur of the moment is very difficult. To use humour with no structure and a vague hope for comedy is just not going to cut it. Using humour just by dressing up is more likely to make people cringe. They might laugh at such antics but that’s more likely to be laughter in embarrassment and if that emotion is not directed it won’t count for anything.
On one particular evening we sat down to dinner and another visitor asked about the pre-dinner ritual that had been listed in the schedule. When I pointed out that we had just seen the ritual her reply was, “That was a ritual?!” All I could do in response was to shrug. Later I couldn’t even remember what took place before dinner in that so called ritual. Now let me point out the implications of that. The pre-dinner ritual had no impact whatsoever, in fact my memory has dumped it. Of course some might like to argue, in vain hope, that it had such impact that my conscious mind has erased it and its gone completely into my unconscious but I’d say that’s hopeful bollocks?
Rituals that are silly all the time are just plain silly. They have no impact and are nothing more than street theatre. In fact street theatre has more impact because the participants are likely to be trained in drama and the audience often talks about it for ages after. A proper ritual is a special moment, not just drunkenness. A proper ritual has structure and gnosis. The structure contains the symbolism and directs the gnosis to where it will have its effect. (Please don’t take me to task if my use of the word gnosis differs from your normal accepted use as I live in the magickal wilderness and don’t mix much with hierarchical orders that have systems and accepted terminologies.) Gnosis is the oomph that drives the symbolism to where it is intended to work. Without the two there is no point. A ritual where we make vague air or water sounds to evoke air or water doesn’t really do anything. Does making a vague gurgling sound make you feel emotional as water symbolism should? Does making a swooshing sound perk up your intellect and make you pay attention as air symbolism should? Both of these are examples from one of the rituals that weekend. Of course a given symbol operates at an unconscious level but made up sounds don’t really do that.
Now of course not every symbolic act, noise or smell has an immediate effect. But if you read Crowley’s diaries (or somewhere I read it) he says if you want to create Tiphareth you paint (or drape) the temple yellow, adorn it with the relevant plants, fill the air with the correct incenses, eat the food of the correct correspondences and do all those other things ingrained by centuries of repeated use. The point is, he says, that everywhere you look, every image you see, every sense of your mind/body/spirit is filled with the corresponding reference. If the symbolism for your intention is related to looning around then loon around, but if it’s not then don’t do it!
In the conference venue that I’m referring to they had a particular room that was used for the major rituals. The room was decked out with the trappings of a ceremonial temple, altars, steps, pillars, etc., all painted in the correct Masonic colours, black and white chequers, all the right details down to the Nth degree. (Again forgive me if my terminology is incorrect.) The effort these people put into building their temple is second to none and they are to be praised for that effort. However, the room was also used as a lounge and workshop venue and somewhere to chase through in something that I recollect as akin to hide and seek. (There’s nothing wrong with hide and seek per-se, especially when everybody is a bit wasted in a venue that is a natural maze, but there are limits.)
There is a point to setting out some rules for keeping a temple as a sacred space, for having it consecrated from start to finish, for only entering past the sacred seal by those permitted in the correct manner with reverence and suitable justification to be there, for not partying in there, for not using the temple for workshops that are not sacred rituals, for creating the most high and respected position of temple warden who is the first to enter, so that person will enforce this discipline on pain of shame for those who break the rules. There is a point to all this. That point is that as soon as you cross the threshold of The Temple (not the room that is used as the alternative lounge) you will be able to taste the gnosis before you even start.
The room I am thinking of in this venue is a wonderful space. It has some history, an appearance of majesty that implies gnosis from the start. It has two magnificent entrances that could be allocated to priesthood and participants. It has everything that makes it special. To use it for other things cheapens it. To have a Temple in the way that I describe would begin to add gnosis to the whole weekend and start to do away with the music and movement aspect that the event is apparently cursed with. If you want to party in your temple then I don’t want to practice magick with you and I certainly wouldn’t invite you into my temple. If that is the case you need to look up the meaning of the word temple.
If the only people that return each year are the members of your order, plus a few mates, then you don’t have a magickal retreat (or whatever you’d like it to be). You have a party to which you allow other people to buy tickets. People who come to magickal conferences, symposia, retreats and the like, expect some things; they expect magick and not just a load of messing about; they expect rituals that are properly thought out and not pasted together from a few vague ideas. In this case less is most definitely more. A policy of never mind the quality, feel the width doesn’t work.
The long standing magical orders that have names going back generations carry the torch of those that have gone before; fucking about with the flame will only blow it out. From what I can see there is but a glimmer remaining. Establishing a proper sacred space would start the process of rekindling that flame. Or you could party in your temple; continue pissing in the holy water, and wonder why nobody turns up any more.