John Michael Greer
Pantheacon 11: San Jose, California.
Saturday, February 18th. 3:30pm PST
As you’ve probably guessed already, my name is John Michael Greer, and first off I’d like to thank all of you for being here. We have a lot of stuff to cover, and probably everybody in this room will be offended by at least one thing I say during the next hour and a half. That can’t be helped. I’ve studied and practiced magic for thirty years now, and taught it for nearly twenty; I’ve seen a lot of very capably done magic during that time, but a lot more that was, well, pretty half-assed. I’ve drawn a few conclusions from my experiences, but of course your mileage may vary. Take what follows for whatever it’s worth.
The title of this talk is “A Magical Education.” In a world that’s still giddy over J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, those words carry a certain amount of baggage but they also have an important lesson to teach. Rowling’s tales of young witches and wizards at school have reminded a lot of people in the magical scene that magic is something that has to be learned. This is a point that some mages these days have tried to avoid facing, since it’s a lot easier to decide that you already know it all, or that your inborn magical talents are all you need. Sounds great, but as any craftsperson can tell you, raw talent isn’t worth all that much unless it’s developed through training and practice, and the people who think they know everything are generally those who know the least. It’s a mark of people who actually know something about magic— or any other craft— that they’re aware of just how little they actually know. For that reason I don’t think it’s out of line to talk here about how to get a magical education.
I want to stress the last word. Today’s magical community has plenty of technically competent mages. I’m also going to talk about how to become one of those, in case you don’t happen to be one already. But we have a shortage of educated mages— mages who can not only do magic, but who understand what they’re doing, and can not only teach it to others by rote, but explain it to them so they can understand what they’re doing. We do have some. Given the obstacles in the way of getting a real magical education these days, that speaks very well of the passion and commitment with which so many of today’s mages pursue their Art. But we don’t have as many as we ought to, and some of the barriers that interfere most with the growth and development of the magical community come from that fact…
If our society were less terrified of magic, there would be schools of magic in every large city and people who wanted to become mages could register for classes and come out the other end as competent and well-educated practitioners of the magical arts. There are some projects heading in that direction right now, and in fact some of my fellow-presenters here at Pantheacon are hard at work trying to make that vision a reality. For the time being, though, most of us who want to become competent and well-educated practitioners of the magical arts are going to have to do the job ourselves. Even if you’re studying with a teacher, or belong to a coven or a magical lodge, or have the chance to participate in one of the schools of magic I’ve just mentioned, you still have to do a good deal of the job yourselves. Education is lighting a lamp, not filling a bucket, and every teacher knows all too well that the best teaching in the world won’t do a thing for a student who isn’t willing to take responsibility for his or her education.
I mentioned a moment ago that there are obstacles in the way of getting a real magical education these days, and I want to discuss two of those right now. Those of you who know your way around the Cabalistic Tree of Life may recall that the path through the Veil of the Sanctuary leads past two fierce guardians: Death and the Devil, or in more prosaic language the potentials for disastrous imbalances of force and form that beset the would-be initiate on his or her way to mastery of magic. Well, there are two guardians flanking the path to a useful magical education in modern culture, too. They’re not quite the same as the ones on the Tree of Life, but they’re every bit as fierce, and I’m sure everyone in this room knows people who have fallen victim to one or both.
The first of the guardians is the many-headed monster of fantasy fiction and media magic. That’s a tough one to face, because most people who get involved in magic in the first place do it because something in the image of magic in our culture’s entertainment media struck a chord somewhere deep. I speak from personal experience here. At age 10, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Gandalf. Try telling that to your school guidance counselor! When I stumbled across my first-ever book of Golden Dawn ritual magic a few years later, I flung myself into it with all the rapture an overenthusiastic teenager can manage, which is saying something. It took me years of study and magical practice, not to mention additional maturity to really notice the fact that magic in novels and movies is not the same thing as the magic that actually works here and now, in the only world we actually inhabit.
I know this is an unpopular thing to say, but magic isn’t whatever you want it to be. Some things work, and some things don’t. Traditions of magic around the world have settled on remarkably similar collections of technique— I’ve had the chance to talk shop with a Shinto priest, and we both discovered that Shinto esotericism and British Druid Revival ritual magic have a lot more in common than either of us expected. That’s because certain things, certain processes and techniques and odd corners of human neurology, allow you to bend the universe of human experience to your will more effectively than others.
This has uncomfortable implications for those of us— and remember, I’m talking about myself here too— who grow up on fantasy fiction or movies about magic, and decide we want to be mages just like Gandalf, or Harry Potter, or whoever. That’s exactly what we can never be. Novelists or sceenplay writers, remember, don’t come up with the magic in their imaginary worlds to teach us how to do magic in this one. They create their magical systems and spells as plot engines for the sake of the story. The problem, of course, is that magical systems created for fictional effect usually have exactly that— fictional effects— when you try to put them to use in the world we actually live in.
Here’s an example. Quite a few years back, I spent some time frequenting alt.magick on Usenet, and I remember one guy who made a plaintive post… He’d wanted to keep his roommate out of his dorm room for a couple of hours, and since he’d been reading Katherine Kurtz’ Deryni novels, he’d cast the Wards Major, a powerful protective spell that Kurtz’ Deryni magicians use all the time to good effect. Damn if the roommate didn’t walk right in despite his spell. He posted to alt.magick wanting to know what he’d done wrong. I think someone suggested that he obviously didn’t have enough Deryni blood to make it work. Cold, but accurate enough.
In the same way, there are a lot of people who try to do Klingon magic, or Darkover magic, or we-can’t-tell-you-what-it-is-because-Mercedes-Lackey-will-sue-us magic, and run into the same problem. Here in the world we live in, there’s a real shortage just now of matrix crystals, and tickets to the Klingon homeworld, and cute telepathic horsies with big blue eyes. Now some would suggest that there’s also a real shortage of reality testing, but I think they’re missing the point. People turn to fantasy literature and the like because the world that’s presented to them by the schools and the media is as imaginary as Middle Earth, and pretty damn dismal into the bargain. One of the things that makes it dismal is that it flatly denies the reality of magic, a reality that’s woven into our blood and bones and nervous systems. So when fantasy novels and movies offer a glimpse of the living reality of magic, it’s no wonder a lot of people embrace it as passionately as they do.
But that passion has to be integrated into a clear sense of what works and what doesn’t in real world magic. I can raise my hands to the sky and shout Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth! until my face turns blue, and I won’t be able to launch firebolts from my fingertips the way Gandalf did. But I can study a proven system of word magic, learn how to shape sound with my voice so that it sends changes cascading through my nervous system and the minds and bodies of the people around me, and get some pretty remarkable effects. You can also do as some Chaos magicians have done, and borrow symbolism from fantasy fiction— but you’ll notice that those Chaos magicians combine the fantasy symbolism with distinctly nonfantasy technique, which they got from solidly proven magical traditions. So the many-headed monster of fantasy can become a source of inspiration and enthusiasm in magical training, and if it’s handled carefully, it can also become a source of evocative symbolism. The problems come when it’s treated as a source of accurate technical knowledge.
But too many people flee from that guardian only to fall into the jaws of the other. Plenty of would-be mages become disgusted by the fantasy, the make-believe, the dress-up games and role playing that too often disguises itself as magical practice in the occult community these days, and they decide to look for real magic, proven magic, magic from some historical period where such nonsense didn’t exist yet. Fair enough; but too many of them fall into the opposite trap, and come to think that the only way to do real magic is to limit themselves strictly to some tradition or system handed down from the distant past. They become the prey of the other fierce guardian of the path, the hobgoblin of authenticity.
Now historical authenticity is a very good thing, if you’re a historian. If you want to know how mages practiced magic in the Renaissance, or in the Middle Ages, or in ancient Greece or Mesopotamia, questions of authenticity should be near the very top of your checklist. This is particularly true because there’s a huge amount of fantasy fiction disguised as history in the magical community, an endless torrent of grandmother stories and claims of ancient lineage used to bolster magical systems that date from the mid-twentieth century when they weren’t invented last week over beer at the local Pizza Hut’s all you can eat night. But when you want to know what sort of magic you should practice here and now, authenticity is irrelevant.
That’s also an unpopular thing to say these days, because a lot of people are very deeply invested in being authentic this or traditional that. There’s a real ego boost in being able to claim that you’re a real Hermeticist or Druid or trad Wiccan or whatever, while anyone who doesn’t fit your definition of authenticity is a fake. Some people become so addicted to the ego high that you’ll find them barging onto one Yahoo group after another, where they can parade their superior knowledge and tell everyone else how wrong they are. But even those who don’t fall victim to this sort of galloping assholitis lose something crucial by an unthinking worship of authenticity. If historical authenticity is all that matters, then creativity is bad; innovation is bad. And a tradition that abandons creativity and innovation is dead. You may be able to keep the mummified corpse on display like Lenin in his tomb, but eventually the makeup is going to wear off and people will realize that what you’ve got isn’t a living tradition; it’s a corpse.
The irony here is that an obsession with authenticity is perhaps the single most inauthentic thing you can do in magic. We know one thing for sure about magicians in the past— anywhere in the past: they used what worked. The oldest and most authentic tradition in all of magic is the tradition of stealing anything that’s not nailed down, and bringing along a crowbar for use on the things that are. Choose any magical tradition from the past, look into its roots, and you’ll find a fantastic gallimaufry of sources. There are no culturally pure magical traditions. That’s a simple fact of the history of magic. Imposing purity tests on magical traditions may feed people’s egos, not to mention fostering ethnic and cultural divisions of the sort the world could very well do without these days, but it’s not going to make you a better magician.
The hobgoblin of authenticity is very much an American hobgoblin, and it crops up in a lot of different corners of American culture these days. In the martial arts scene, for example, I’ve met people who have studied some authentic traditional style, and boast that they do every detail of every form exactly the way it’s been handed down to them. Mention that to any of the elderly Chinese guys who participated in the martial arts scene in Beijing or Shanghai before 1949 and they’ll have to struggle not to laugh. In those days, if you did everything exactly the way your teacher did, it meant that you were a lousy student— you didn’t have the initiative or the imagination to adapt the form to your own body, or to come up with anything new to add to the teachings of your style and your kwoon. And yet people boast of that nowadays. In the same way, you’ll meet people who tell you with pride that they perform such and such a ritual in exactly the same way the founder of their tradition did back in the 1950s or whenever. What that means is that neither that person, nor their teacher, nor anyone in their lineage has learned a single new thing about how to perform that ritual since the 1950s— and I find it hard to see anything in that worth boasting about.
Does this mean that history is irrelevant, or that we have nothing to learn from the past? Of course not. What it means is that the lessons of the past have to be tested against the touchstone of the experiences and needs of today. As mages, we turn to the past to learn what kinds of magic worked back then. We turn to living traditions in the present to learn what kinds of magic work right now. But we can’t ever abandon the need to create, to innovate, and to learn something new, because that’s where we’ll find the kinds of magic that will work in the future.
Ah, you’re thinking, but doesn’t that contradict the crabby comments I made about fantasy fiction magic a few minutes ago? Don’t the people who take their magic from old Michael Moorcock novels have exactly the sort of creative, innovative approach to magic I’m proposing now? Well, no. The problem with fantasy fiction magic isn’t that it doesn’t come from some provably authentic ancient source. The problem with fantasy fiction magic is that most of the time it doesn’t work— or to be more precise, the effects you can get are a lot more limited than the effects you can get from magic that’s designed to have nonfictional results. Fantasy magic isn’t meant to work, and in fact the whole genre of fantasy fiction is based on the assumption that magic belongs to faraway worlds, to Oz and Middle Earth and Valdemar— not to here and now. Ironically, the cult of authenticity makes exactly that same assumption by thinking that real magic has to come from some distant time, some faraway place, some exotic culture— anywhere but here and now. Real magic starts from the opposite idea. Paul Foster Case said it best: all the power that ever was or will be is right here. Right now. And that’s why real magic works, right here and right now.
Of course here we get into circles within circles, since there’s always the question of what magic is meant to do. In one sense, the poseurs in the magical community— the folks whose magical practice is limited to dressing in black, wearing 23 pounds of assorted silver jewelry, and leaving books by Aleister Crowley on the coffee table to impress dates— are the most effective mages among us. They know what they want to accomplish, and they accomplish it. It’s just that magic can be used for many things other than acting out a social role. In the same way, if your ambition in magic is to identify yourself with the lead character from your favorite fantasy novel, then fantasy magic may be exactly what you want. If your goal is to get that good warm glow of self-righteousness that comes from knowing that you’re right and everyone else in the world is wrong, then the cult of authenticity may be exactly what you’re looking for.
But magic can do a lot more than that. One of the problems we have in the magical community these days, due to the lack of well-educated mages I referred to earlier, is that too many people have a very cramped and restricted idea of what magic can accomplish. That’s not surprising; nearly all of us have grown up in a culture that flatly rejects the idea that magic can do anything at all, and measures “doing anything at all” using technology as a yardstick. Magic isn’t technology, and it doesn’t do the things that technology does. It does different things, and it does them extremely well. Magical work, thoroughly learned and competently performed, can totally transform yourself and your world. It can take problems most people don’t think they can ever get past, limits most people think are just part of being human, wad them up and jump-shot them into the nearest trash can. The problem is that nearly everything in our society pushes us in the other direction.
We live in a society where rich men get richer by convincing everyone else to give up their own abilities, their own talents, their own potential in order to buy some shoddy technological gimmick that pretends to do the same thing. Instead of learning how to bake bread, buy a bread machine; instead of learning how to remember, buy a palm pilot; instead of learning how to think, buy a television and let the media think for you! It’s as though they convinced everyone to cut off their own legs so they could buy the latest high-tech prosthetics, which don’t work as well as real legs, but are much more fashionable. The usual claim made by the prosthetics merchants is that using machines to do what you can do better saves time, which is true, but only if you don’t count the time you put in earning the money to buy the thing, maintain it, power it, and deal with the mess it inevitably creates.
Not all the prosthetics on sale in our prosthetic society are machines… There are also prosthetic identities; instead of figuring out who you really are, buy an identity off the rack! But of course that’s something we’ve talked about already. One of the reasons many would-be magicians get gobbled by the many-headed monster of fantasy magic is that they’re trying to take on a pre-fab identity that appeals to them, the identity of a character in some fantasy epic who seems to have everything they lack, and the magic is part of the kit. One of the reasons many other would-be magicians become authenticity orcs is that they’re trying to fit themselves into an identity that appeals to them, and think that if they’re more authentic than anyone else they get to stop being who they actually are. In either case, magic turns into a humorless sort of roleplaying. Again, if that’s what you want from magic, go for it.
But magic can be much more than that, infinitely much more than that. Every person in this room has the capacity for genius, for magnificence, in some field of human action. Every person in this room— every one of you— has potentials that would flabbergast you if you caught the merest glimpse of just what you can be. Machines do what they’re built to do, and when people reduce themselves to the level of machines, they do what they’re told to do. You can do more than that; you can be more than that. Researchers into what the jargon mechanics call “exceptional human capacities” have found time and again that in the right circumstances, the most ordinary people can accomplish unbelievable things. The purpose of magical training is to be able to do that whenever you choose, to make any circumstances the right circumstances for the lightning to strike.
So it’s crucial not to aim your magic too low. That’s part of becoming a competent and well-educated mage. But if you want to become a competent and well-educated mage, how do you avoid the two fierce guardians? It’s a complicated process. I usually recommend that people find some established system of magic that appeals to them, and practice it steadily for a couple of years. If you’re doing that in a teacher/student relationship, whether as teacher or as student, you need to pay attention to both of the guardians. If you’re the teacher, you need to think hard about what parts of the material you’re passing on are essential, and what parts can be modified or replaced by something else better suited to your student’s capacities and interests. If you’re the student, you need to think hard about whether your dislike for any given part of the material you’re given is worth following, or whether you’ll gain more by confronting the thing you don’t like and learning the lessons it has to teach. If you’re learning on your own from books and internet resources, the way most mages in training do these days, you have to fill both roles. That’s a tricky balancing act, though it can certainly be done.
At this point, though, we can move past the two fierce guardians, and we can start talking about the nuts and bolts of a magical education— the secrets of learning magic, in a certain sense. There’s a common bad habit of thinking that the way to learn magic is to get hold of secret teachings nobody else has. I call this the Yoda Fallacy. “Master Yoda or the nearest available equivalent you find, and the secrets of the Force get him to teach you, and a Jedi Knight that makes you.” Right? Wrong. That might possibly have had a scrap of truth to it back when magical teachings were hard to come by, but these days the magical secrets of the ages are sitting on bookshelves over in the dealer’s room right now. You can get all the secrets of the Force you want and that by itself won’t make you a mage. For the would-be mage, the most important “secrets” of magic aren’t secret at all, and they’re not even particularly exotic.
What are these secrets, then? They’re exactly the same factors that bring success in any other human activity— a point that’s led more than one magician to argue that all human activities, no exceptions, are forms of magic.
Imagine for a moment that instead of wanting to be a mage, you’ve decided to become a guitar player. You’re not going to get there by wishing, or by decorating your place with posters of your favorite lead guitarist, or by reading lots of novels about rock bands, or by buying guitars and leaving them all over your apartment for visitors to admire, or by attending a concert and listening to someone else perform eight times a year. You need three things in order to get from the desire to the reality. First, you need to decide what kind of guitar music you want to play, and learn as much as you possibly can about it, while picking up a good general knowledge of music theory and some background in other styles and instruments. Second, you need to get a guitar and practice playing it for half an hour or an hour a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Third, you need to learn from your practice, and to compare what you can do with what you want to do, not so you can puff up your ego or wallow in how bad you think you’re failing, but so you can see what you need to work on next and measure how your learning process is coming along.
These same three factors— knowledge, practice, and the ability to learn-are the keys to magic. That’s the secret. If you study magic, practice magic, and learn from your experiences, you’ll become a capable and well-educated mage. It really is as simple as that.
But of course “simple” is not necessarily the same thing as “easy.” In particular, there’s a deep paradox in magical training, because the tool you’re working with and the material you’re working on are the same thing: yourself. To study magic is to develop the magical imagination by giving it the images and ideas it needs to work on. To practice magic is to develop the magical will by challenging it to push past the common bad habits of the everyday self. To learn from your experiences is to develop the magical memory by teaching yourself to face experience as it is, and not as you want it to be or fear it might be. The problem is that imagination, will, and memory are also the tools you need to accomplish these things. It’s as though the key you need to open the door is locked inside the door, or as though the first step in building a house was to make tools that you need those same tools to make.
It’s not quite as bad as that, since everybody has some capacity to imagine, will, and remember and those give you something to start from. Most of the techniques of magical training, from the most basic to the most baroque, are simply ways of getting past this difficulty by boosting the ordinary supply of imagination, will and memory. But the core of study, regular practice, and learning from your experiences— those are the foundation level on which all other magical methods build. We’ll take them one at a time.
The first one’s study. To become a competent and well-educated mage, you need to learn about magic. You need to learn a lot about magic. Of course you need to start by learning the rituals and teachings of whatever system of magic you happen to fancy. You need to learn them by heart, by the way. Reading a ritual out of a book or off a sheet of paper is fine to begin with, but to make the ritual really catch fire you need to be able to concentrate on it totally, and that’s not going to happen while you’re trying to read the next line through the incense smoke. In the same way, you don’t really understand a piece of magical theory or philosophy until you can explain it in your own words, without looking at the book you got it from.
But you can’t stop there, not if you want to become the sort of well-educated mages we’ve been talking about. Too many people who know their own system of magic very well don’t know any other system at all, and this has a variety of problems. It gets in the way of talking shop with other mages at gatherings like this one; it can also lead you to make a fool of yourself by assuming that your tradition’s approach is common to every other magical tradition, when odds are it isn’t. Thus it’s a good idea to read about other magical traditions, and once you’ve got your feet under you in your own, it’s a good idea to practice another magical tradition now and again. Johann Wolfgang Goethe used to say that someone who only knew one language didn’t really know any language at all. In the same way, if you only know how to practice magic using one system, there are things about practicing magic you don’t know, and you’ll never learn.
I like to encourage students to practice magic that isn’t just from a different tradition, but from a different cultural and linguistic background than the main tradition they practice. You learn most by challenging your boundaries. If you like to practice a refined, intellectual, stuffy magic like the Golden Dawn tradition, the system I originally trained in, do something entirely different: break out the mojo bags, the High John the Conqueror Root and the goofer dust, and take up hoodoo. I promise you you’ll get a completely new perspective on your magical practices— I certainly did. These days you can get access to magic from just about anywhere in the world right here in America, so don’t set your sights too narrowly.
A good general knowledge of world magic is especially worth having, because the effects of magical practice don’t necessarily pay any attention to the boundaries of culture and tradition. Here’s an example. I know a guy who spent twenty-odd years practicing ceremonial magic. One day he was meditating and started feeling these funny sensations in the base of his spine: heat, upward pressure, that sort of thing. Those got more and more intense as he kept practicing, and started moving up his spine. Now if he’d only paid attention to the specific tradition he practiced, he would have been completely baffled, and he might have been in very deep trouble. Fortunately he’d read enough Hindu occult literature that he knew the signs of awakening kundalini, and was able to get the sushumna, the central channel of his spine, relaxed and open enough that the kundalini energy went the right direction, instead of shorting out into one of the side channels and frying his nervous system. That’s a nice fringe benefit, and there’s also the far from minor benefit that his magical work has gone into overdrive since that process started.
So a knowledge of world magic is worth having. It’s at least as important to get a sense of the history of magic. You’re not going to get this by reading the obligatory chapter about the Burning Times in the front of every second book on Pagan magic written in the last fifty years; you need real history written by real historians. The history of magic is extremely complex and it’s remarkably continuous. Most people in the Neopagan community these days, for example, aren’t aware that there have been public Neopagan groups in Britain and America since the eighteenth century. You hear constantly that we’re in the middle of a brand-new magical revival, but there were as many occultists per capita in the US in the 1920s as there are now, and there may have been more.
The magical history of America in particular is practically a black hole in the modern magical scene. How many people in this room know that there were fully functioning, chartered temples of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in Los Angeles and San Francisco a hundred years ago? Those were just two of more than a hundred magical lodges, Pagan circles, and other occult groups here in California at that time. They weren’t secret, either— they advertised in the daily newspapers, for heaven’s sake. The whitewashed all-Christian image of the American past projected by fundamentalists, and uncritically accepted by too many people in the magical community today, is utter horseradish. From Rosicrucian communes in colonial Pennsylvania to all of us here today at Pantheacon 2005, America has always been awash with magic, crawling with wizards and witches and sorcerers. If more of today’s magicians knew that, we could reclaim more of our real history, rather than inventing bogus fam-trad lineages, or pretending we belong to someone else’s culture, or insisting that the Burning Times didn’t end until 1965 and handing the fundamentalists the right to define our history for us.
The fringe benefits of this sort of historical awareness aren’t small. On the off chance that any of you hanker after a career writing occult nonfiction, I’m about to tell you my deep dark secret for coming up with material that nobody else in the magical community has ever heard of. Ready? Read books that were written more than 100 years ago. Almost nobody in the American occult community these days does that. Better yet, read books that were written more than a hundred years ago, in a language other than English. There’s a joke in Europe these days; you know that a person who speaks three languages is called trilingual, and a person who speaks two languages is called bilingual; what do you call a person who only speaks one language? American.
There’s any number of difficulties that come out of the stark terror most Americans feel at the thought of learning a foreign language, but the one that’s most relevant here is parochialism. We end up thinking that the magical traditions we happen to have right here and now are the be-all and end-all of magic, when they’re a tiny sample of the much larger and livelier magical heritage of the world. Learn just about any language you care to, and you can easily double the amount of magical information at your disposal. Choose your language well and it goes up by an order of magnitude or more. Most people in the American magical scene have no notion just how much untranslated magical lore you can get by picking up a decent reading knowledge of Latin, or French, or German, and we’re not even going to talk about the astonishing stuff you can get into with a reading knowledge of classical Chinese. There’s a whole world of magic out there waiting for you; go get it.
I should say that all this assumes you can read at least one language to start with, and of course these days that’s not an assumption we can necessarily make. America’s been sliding down the curve of economic and political decline for some decades now, and one result of that is that a school system that used to be one of the best in the world is now worse than those in some Third World countries. Illiteracy is very common in this country and marginal literacy is much more so. As that gets more common still, one of the things the Pagan and magical community ought to consider doing for its members is organizing volunteer literacy programs. In the meantime, if you have any experience teaching reading, ask around in your local magical scene and see if there’s anyone who would welcome your help. If you have problems reading or can’t read at all, don’t feel bad about that— it’s very common. Ask around and see if there are any adult literacy programs in your area, and get some help.
So you’re studying your own magical system, and you’re learning something about one or two others, and picking up a general knowledge of world magic, and learning French so you can get access to some of those amazing 19th-century French magical textbooks written by people who out-Gothed today’s Goth scene a hundred twenty years in advance. Does that complete your education as a well-rounded magician? Not a chance. Dion Fortune, who was an excellent practical mage as well as a first-rate magical theoretician, and launched a magical order that’s still active today, wrote that a good well-rounded education for a magical initiate should include a solid general knowledge of all the natural sciences, plus history, mathematics, logic and philosophy, psychology and comparative religion. A modest goal! Of course the amount of information to be had in any of these fields has soared exponentially since she wrote, and there are also quite a number of other sciences that didn’t even exist in her time, but have plenty to teach the aspiring magician. Cybernetics, systems theory, semiotics, ecology— the list could go on for days.
But there’s zero point in setting goals that only the most fanatic magical students will ever be able to reach. More realistically, there are three general fields of study outside magic and a foreign language that deserve a central place in a magical education. The first is mythology and folklore. Why? Because it’s the raw material of magical symbolism and ritual. Every magical system, however abstract and philosophical it becomes, has its roots in the rich soil of myth and folk belief. If you know your way around myth and folklore, thinking like a magician is a lot easier, and thinking like a magician is one of the major steps you need to take to become one.
A lot of people in Pagan magical traditions study mythology, but most of them limit their studies to the myths and legends of whatever culture really turns their crank. That’s a good starting point, but Goethe’s comment about languages also applies to mythologies; if you only know one, you don’t really know any. Choose at least one other to study, from the other end of the world, and learn as much about it as you know about the myths of your favorite culture. That way you have some perspective; you start to notice what the common themes are, and what’s specific to each individual culture. While you’re at it, take in some of the writers who try to synthesize all the world’s myths into a single pattern. A lot of people find Joseph Campbell really good for this, though I have to admit I can’t stand him; Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend’s astonishing book Hamlet’s Mill is more my speed. Don’t take them as gospel, or for that matter cast them into the outer darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth; read them, think about them, draw your own conclusions about where they have good points and where they fall short.
This might be a good point, by the way, to mention that you aren’t reading all these books to find out what the truth is and then cling to it like grim death. Jiddu Krishnamurti used to say that truth is a pathless land; you won’t get there by following anyone else’s map. You’re reading these books and studying these subjects to learn how to think, and to give yourself relevant things to think about. Most people in our society these days don’t think. Remember what I said about prosthetics? The media is the prosthetic mind. Listen to conversations these days and most of what you hear is quotes from the media. I remember a political argument I overheard a few years back in which every single word was a sound bite from TV ads for one candidate or the other. Thus it’s a good idea to read books you disagree with, and make yourself try to get inside the author’s point of view, understand why what he or she is saying makes sense from that particular perspective; just as it’s a good idea to read books you agree with and pick apart every single flaw in them you can possibly find. Having the right opinions is worth nothing in magic. Being able to think your own thoughts, and not just parrot someone else’s, is worth everything.
Back to the reading list. The second thing I’d recommend that every aspiring magician study is at least one natural science. Which one? Any one you like. Depending on the kind of magic you do, one may be more useful than another. If you like doing magic with herbs, botany is going to be quite a bit of help. If you ever plan on taking up laboratory alchemy, a good background in practical chemistry is essential. Astrology and astronomy used to be the same thing until four hundred years ago, and the best astrologers know their planetary astronomy inside and out. And the list goes on. It’s crucial to actually get your hands grubby, to practice the science you study and learn the technical language, rather than reading the stuff that gets written for laypeople. If you study botany, in other words, you need to spend time keying out plants and examining them under a low-power microscope; if you take up chemistry, you need to pull on the lab coat and the safety goggles and head into the laboratory; if you study astronomy, plan on spending long nights with one eye up against the eyepiece of a telescope. Learning science without practicing it is like learning magic without practicing it.
Why should mages study science? In a few minutes I’m going to say some very rude things about the ideology that informs most sciences these days, but practical scientific work is another matter. Here and now, there’s no better way to learn the difference between what you know, what you think you know, and what you really don’t have a clue about. The scientific method has its limits but it’s a great cure for the sort of pompous nonsense and wishful thinking that play way too large a role in today’s magical community. Beyond that, there are practical advantages— if you’ve spent time in a chemistry lab, for instance, and then you take up alchemy, you’re a lot less likely to poison yourself or blow yourself to kingdom come— and there are deeper issues. Modern science evolved out of magic. As Lynn White pointed out in a crucial article three decades ago, it lost track of some core insights in the course of its evolution, and those losses have a lot to do with the ecological crisis that’s flooding over the sand castles of industrial society just now. If today’s mages can begin the process of bringing science back into contact with its occult roots, and with the magical vision of the universe as a living unity instead of a collection of objects banging into one another in the void, we can lay the foundations for a way of thought that can save the best achievements of today’s science but keep from wrecking the biosphere on which all our lives depend.
The third thing I’d propose as essential study for mages is a basic grasp of philosophy. Magic used to be considered the highest form of applied philosophy; there’s a reason why Cornelius Agrippa’s great book, the most notorious sorcerer’s manual of the Renaissance, went by the title Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Again, to become a mage you need to be able to think like a mage; that implies that you need to be able to think; and the way to learn how to think is to think about what you’re thinking, to turn your attention to your own thoughts and see if they actually make sense. If you can’t critique your own thoughts and opinions, you don’t have thoughts; your thoughts have you. Philosophy is how you learn to think about thoughts, look at the basic assumptions that underlie them, and explore different ways of making sense of the world. It’s essential to the mage in training.
An astonishing number of the squabbles that have kept the magical community from accomplishing much of what it could have accomplished in the last thirty years could have been avoided with even a little undergraduate philosophy. A few years back the meaning of the word “witch” was a hot button that drove endless bickering; in some circles the meaning of the word “druid” is becoming the same sort of rhetorical football today. Nearly everyone involved talked as though the word had some fixed, essential meaning that you could get from its etymology. It doesn’t take much philosophy of language to show that words are tools, not truths; that the meaning of a word is determined by usage, not etymology. The word “black” originally meant “white;” it’s an exact cognate of the French word blanc. Attention to that might have spared the community a good deal of bickering and saved time and effort for something more useful.
But philosophy has other uses for the mage. I’ve suggested above that modern science can be fitted back into the worldview of magic. Quite a few writers on magic in the last hundred fifty years or so have tried the opposite trick, and struggled to find some way to stuff magic into the world view of modern science. The recent attempts to find room for magic in quantum mechanics are just the latest in a long string of such efforts. The appeal is understandable, but all the same, it’s a sucker’s game, because scientific ideology was designed to exclude magic and everything like it. I mentioned reading real history by real historians a little while back. Frances Yates and Margaret Jacobs are two of the latter who belong close to the top of the list. Both talk about the way that the ideology of modern science evolved out of magical philosophy, and Jacobs talks about the conscious political motivations that drove the creators of modern science in the seventeenth century to redefine the world in a way that made magic impossible. That’s material for a different talk, but the point that’s relevant here is that the world view taught by the cheerleaders of modern science isn’t simple common sense or reality. It’s an ideology with its own ulterior motives, and it actually doesn’t have that much to do with the realities of laboratory work and fieldwork— another reason to study at least one science, as I suggested a little earlier.
The ideology of modern science is also built on some exceptionally shaky philosophical ground— on assumptions about the nature of reality, truth, and meaning that won’t stand up to serious examination. Modern philosophers as different as Arthur Schopenhauer and Alfred North Whitehead have put together serious, coherent philosophies that leave plenty of room for magic. Older philosophies assume the reality of magic as a matter of course. A handful of people in the Pagan community have started discussing the role of Neoplatonism as the core mystical philosophy underlying modern Pagan spirituality. It’s also the core magical philosophy underlying most of the historic traditions of Western magic, and some background in Neoplatonist philosophy is a great way to get a handle on older magical traditions— not to mention a great way to get a sense of the possibilities of magic, and get past the cramped and restricted view of magic’s potentials I critiqued earlier.
Another branch of philosophy that deserves some attention in a course of magical study is ethics. I know this is an unpopular subject to bring up, because far too many of us grew up in families and churches where ethics gets confused with morality, and morality gets confused with some jerk in a minister’s outfit yelling at people on Sunday for the sins he himself commits the other six days of the week. That’s not what I’m talking about. There are three big questions that cover nearly everything in philosophy, and the three main branches of philosophy— ontology, epistemology, and ethics— exist to deal with them. What exists? That’s ontology. What can I know? That’s epistemology. What should I do? That’s ethics. Since magic is mostly about doing things, it’s inevitably about ethics, and some background in the philosophy of ethics will get you past the sort of hypocritical Sunday school moralizing that passes for ethical thought all through our culture— including large parts of the Pagan and magical subculture— and start grappling with ethical issues themselves, considering the consequences of their actions, and thinking their own thoughts about what words like “good” and “bad” actually mean.
Mythology, philosophy, and at least one natural science, plus magical lore, the history and traditions of magic from around the world, and a foreign language: there’s your basic course of study. A lot of work, but within the reach of most people— like magic itself. Those of you who are attending college, or will be going to college, or can arrange to go back to college even for the occasional evening class, have a huge advantage here, by the way. Every one of the subjects I’ve mentioned except for practical magic itself can be picked up at any college or university. It may not be Hogwarts, but for now it’s the next best thing. If you’re in a degree program, choose your electives carefully and by graduation day you’ll have a solid magical education and can swap the mortarboard for a tall pointy hat with moons and stars on it.
So much for study. Study is essential so that you know what to do, why to do it, and how it fits into the big picture, but it’s not going to teach you how to do magic. For that you need practice. Remember the would-be guitar player I mentioned earlier? If all he does is read books on music theory and guitar technique, he’s going to be very well informed but he still won’t know how to play a guitar. To do that, he’s got to pick up the guitar every single day, for a half hour or an hour or more, and practice.
Now this is one of the things people who want to learn magic tend to shy away from. Partly it’s a function of the modern social context of magical practice. A lot of people who want to study and practice magic these days come out of countercultures that rebel against our society’s rigid timetables and routines, and the thought of buckling down to half an hour of magical practice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, sounds way too much like the sort of class schedule or work schedule most of us would like to see Cthulhu rise from the deeps and drag away in his tentacles forever. So would-be mages often try to avoid regular practice. They try to be spontaneous, to do magic when the spirit moves them. It’s a great idea, in theory. The only problem is that I’ve yet to meet a really competent magician who trained that way.
Learning magic is work. It’s hard work. It takes time, effort, passion, and patience. The people who master it are the people who put in the work, day in and day out, for years. Again, our guitar player is a good comparison. You know the kind of guitarist who practices for two hours a day every day, and you know the kind that plays when he feels like it, which usually adds up to once a week or so when his friends come over to jam. You know and I know which kind actually end up knowing how to play a guitar well enough to make it in a band worth listening to. Magic is exactly the same way.
It’s also something that takes years to master. No matter who you are or how much talent you think you have, you’re not going to go from novice to adept in a few weeks or a single year. Ultimately, magic takes a lifetime to learn, but then you’ve got a lifetime to learn it. One of my teachers, when he decided you might have what it took to learn more than the kindergarten level of what he had to teach, would sit you down and tell you in very serious tones that it would take you at least ten years to get anywhere with the stuff he was teaching. That scared a lot of people off… When he told me that, I thought about it, and told him that I was still going to be studying and practicing in ten years, so why not? It turned out that that was the answer he was looking for. Becoming a first-rate mage will take you many years, but if you’re still going to be doing magic many years from now, you might as well get started.
What I recommend for beginning students is that they choose a single basic practice from the magical tradition of their choice, and work up to doing it once a day, every day. Many magical traditions have specific practices designed for this sort of work. If you’re a Golden Dawn mage, it’s the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram and the Middle Pillar exercise. If you’re a Thelemite, the Star Ruby, or perhaps the Mass of the Phoenix. The older Druid orders each have their basic practice: in OBOD it’s the Light-Body exercise, in AODA it’s the Sphere of Protection, and so on. If you’re a Wiccan, you can cast a circle and call the quarters. In most traditions, the basic practice teaches you how to open and close magical space, and how to contact and work with magical energies. When you do it daily, you get good at it. That means that when you need to use your magical skills to accomplish something, you can. You can create magical space, clear it of unwanted energies, call in the energies you want, work with them, and then disperse leftover energies and close down the space between the worlds, quickly, cleanly, competently, and with no fumbling or wasted effort. All that for fifteen or twenty minutes a day.
To begin with, though, if you don’t have much background in magical practice, once a day may be too much. Magic is intense, and it puts strains on the body and mind. No matter who you are, or how much talent you think you have, you may not be up to the strain of daily practice to start with. For starters, do your practice once a week. When you’ve done that for a little while, go to twice or three times a week. Fill in the spaces as you feel ready for them. Pay attention to how you feel after magical work. If you’re feeling spacy, dizzy, disconnected from the ordinary world, cut back on the pace a bit, make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins, and get some massage; that will help you reconnect to your body.
A word of warning for any of you who choose a vegetarian diet, by the way. Many people find that a meat-free diet doesn’t work well with ritual magic. Eating meat helps bring your awareness back into contact with your physical body, which after all is made of meat. It doesn’t happen with everyone, but fairly often people who try to learn magic while eating a vegetarian diet have trouble with their nerves. If you’re learning magic and avoiding meat, and you find that you’re becoming hypersensitive, jittery, and easily stressed out, you may have to choose between your diet and your magic. Just remember that there are other spiritual paths, and there are also other healthy diets.
Of course you’ll want to add other magical workings to the schedule of basic practices. There’s a lot of value in systematic practice of basic magical exercises, and some traditions have beginners work on those, and nothing but those, until they’ve made some serious progress. I understand the point of that, but I’m not at all sure it’s necessary. There’s much to be gained by actually performing magical workings intended to cause change in the world around you, and seeing what happens. When they fail, you get a very good glimpse of the distance between where you are and where you want to be, which is an excellent cure for the sort of beginner’s grandiosity we too often see in the magical community, where people with six months’ practice beneath their belt become convinced that they’re Ipsissimi and can do anything. When your workings succeed, on the other hand, you start to learn just what you can do. Of course you’re likely to make some mistakes, but that’s how you learn. As a magical novice you don’t yet have the ability to make mistakes you won’t recover from, and if you burn your fingers a few times, you’ll know better by the time you get within range of serious trouble.
You may also want to add other types of training. Most mages I know practice at least one system of divination. Golden Dawn initiates of the old school were expected to prove their competence in three— Tarot, geomancy, and horary astrology— and while the Golden Dawn did tend to go over the top a little bit, or more than a little bit, getting a working mastery of at least one method of divination is a good thing. Divination is to magic what the eye is to the hand. They work together very well, and nearly all magical traditions have at least one system of divination that’s closely allied to their magical working methods.
There are also plenty of what I’ve called auxiliary arts in the magical tradition, though most people in the occult community these days don’t know much about them. What are auxiliary arts? Well, think of Kwai-Chang Caine, the hero of the old TV series Kung Fu. He was primarily a Buddhist monk; that means his primary training was in meditation and ritual, though of course that wasn’t what you saw most of through the blurry flashback scenes of Master Po and the Shaolin Temple. His ability to cure diseases, heal wounds, and kick the stuffing out of a dozen cowboy-hatted heavies without working up a sweat— those were sidelines, things Buddhist monks in the Shaolin tradition did when they weren’t busy with the core work of meditation and ritual.
Those are auxiliary arts. The occult traditions of the West used to have dozens of them, and there are still quite a few hanging around in old books if you know where to look. There was at least one Hermetic magical martial art— a system of swordsmanship based on sacred geometry and magical proportion, drawn from Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy no less, which was a going concern during the seventeenth century but dropped out of use thereafter. There are 19th-century Western systems of exercise and internal energy work that you’d need a microscope to tell from Qigong. There’s the Art of Memory, which is a system of training that allows you to chuck your palm pilot and get instant recording and recall out of your own brain. There are healing systems, dozens of them. There are traditions of art, music, and so on. Do you need to get into these to be a capable and well-educated mage? No, but if you have an interest in one or more of these, you might as well— and there again, that means practice.
So you’re doing all these practices, and if you remember the third secret of magical training I mentioned earlier, you know you need to learn from them, use them to figure out what works for you and what parts of your magical skills need more work. There are plenty of ways to do this, starting with sheer brute repetition, but most Western magical traditions have a special tool to help you learn from your experiences. It’s called the magical journal.
What’s a magical journal? A blank book that you fill with details of your own magical practices. February 19th, 2005, 6:30 AM, morning meditation, 30 minutes. Theme was thus and such. Mental focus was shaky at first but I managed to get it under control after a few minutes. I understood X, Y, and Z; still not sure what W means, have to work on that. 3:50 PM, Pentagram ritual and Middle Pillar exercise. Somewhat improved, but the visualizations of the archangels still need work. Energy was moderate. 11:44 PM, daily review. Got about halfway back before I fell asleep. February 20th, and so on.
Now some magical lodges and traditions require you to keep a magical journal as part of their training program. We do that in the AODA, for example. It’s one way to encourage people to do the course work, and if you require students to pass an examination before they go on to the next degree, as we do in AODA, you can have them go back into their journal and pull out stuff for the exam. But too often this is seen as the be-all and end-all of keeping a magical journal, and the real value of the exercise gets lost.
The real value of the exercise is that when you keep a magical journal, you can check your memory against something a little more stable, and that’s crucial in magical training. Most people don’t realize just how much memory bends and sways with each little breeze of aware-ness. There’s a thing called state-dependent memory; when you’re in a given mental state, you have a very easy time remembering things you took in when you were in the same state in the past, and a much harder time remembering things you took in when you were in a different state. I knew people in college who found that out the hard way. They’d guzzle coffee all night studying for a test, then go take the test the next afternoon with no coffee at all, and they couldn’t remember a thing: too much blood in their caffeine stream, or something like that.
Emotion is the same way. When you’re angry, you click into state-dependent memory, so you remember all sorts of things that made you angry in the past. When you’re depressed, you click into state-dependent memory, and remember all sorts of miserable, depressing things. You can learn to break out of it, there are skills and techniques for accessing memory from different states, but those have to be learned and they’re not easy at first.
And finally, magical states of consciousness are the same way. You can have amazing magical experiences, and three weeks later you’ll have lost most of the details. That’s annoying, and it can also be a practical problem, because one of the things that happens in magical states of consciousness is that you get symbolism, teachings, techniques that you can put to use in your magical practice. That’s where the really innovative and powerful stuff comes into your magical work, by the way— realizations that come out of your own practice and your own experience. Your magical journal is where you copy down those realizations while they’re still fresh, before the details have slipped away, and you copy down everything, not just the stuff that seemed important at the time, because a week or a month or a year from now the detail that didn’t seem important at the time may turn out to be the key to whole new realms of magic. That’s happened to me more than once, and it’s happened to most of the mages I know.
There’s another fringe benefit to the magical journal if you think you might want to write books about magic someday. I already mentioned one of my deep dark secrets for writing magical nonfiction; here’s another. During the late 1980s I spent something like five years using meditation, scrying, and ritual to work my way through the whole structure of the Cabalistic Tree of Life. It was a lot of work, and I forget how many blank books I filled up keeping up my magical journal during those years. When I was finished, I had a good basic understanding of the Tree of Life— and I stress the word “basic;” gaining a mastery of the whole tree is a lifetime’s work— but I also had about 90% of the material for my first two books.
So there you have it. Study, of magic, including the magical traditions of other places and times; of mythology and folklore; a natural science; philosophy; and a foreign language. Practice, including a daily magical working, but also including practical workings of various kinds, divination, and any auxiliary arts that might interest you. Keeping a magical journal. A lot of work? Yes, but no more than you’d expect to put into becoming a good musician, or a martial artist, or a schoolteacher, or a dentist, or anything else. Magic is work; it has to be learned, studied, practiced, for years— like anything else worth doing. The payoffs, for those willing to do the work, are literally beyond imagining. Are you willing to take up that challenge? That, my friends, depends on you.