From: Colin Low
Category: Magickal Theory
Date: 12 Jul 1999
These notes attempt to say something useful about magical ritual. This is difficult, because ritual is invented, and any sequence of actions can be ritualised and used to symbolise anything; but then something similar can be said about words and language, and that doesn't prevent us from trying to communicate, so I will make the attempt to say something useful about ritual, and try to steer a path between the Scylla of anthropology and sweeping generalisations, and the Charybdis of cultish parochialism. My motivation for writing this is my belief that while any behaviour can be ritualised, and it is impossible to state "magical ritual consists of this" or "magical ritual consists of that", some magical rituals are better than others.
This raises questions of what I mean by "goodness" or "badness", "effectiveness" or "ineffectiveness" in the context of magical work, and I intend to duck this with a pragmatic reply. A magical ritual is "good" if it achieves its intention without undesired side effects, and it is "bad" if the roof falls on your head. Underlying this definition is another belief: that magical ritual taps a raw and potentially dangerous (and certainly amoral) psychic force which has to be channelled and directed; traditional forms of magical ritual do that and are not so arbitrary as they appear to be.
An outline of ceremonial magical ritual (in the basic form in which it has been handed down in Europe over the centuries) is that the magician works within a circle and uses consecrated tools and the magical names of various entities to evoke or invoke Powers. It seems to work. Or at least it works for some people some of the time. How *well* does it work? That's a fair question, and not an easy one to answer, as there is too much ego at stake in admitting that one's rituals don't always work out.
My rituals don't always work - sometimes nothing appears to happen, sometimes I get unexpected side effects. The same is true of those magicians I know personally, and I suspect the same is true of most people. Even at the mundane level, if you've ever tried to recreate a "magical moment" in a relationship, you will know that it is hard to stand in the same river twice - there is an elusive and wandering spark which all too often just wanders. In summary, I like to know why some rituals work better than others, and why some, even when that elusive spark is present, go sour and call up all the wrong things - these notes contain some of my conclusions.
As I have tried to lift the rug and look underneath the surface, the approach is abstract in places; I prefer to be practical rather than theoretical, but if magic is to be anything other than a superstitious handing-down of mumbo-jumbo, we need a model of what is happening, a causality of magic against which it is possible to make value judgements about what is good and bad in ritual. Traditional models of angels, spirits, gods and goddesses, ancestral spirits and so on are useful up to a point, but these are not the end of the story, and in penetrating beyond these "intermediaries" the magician is forced to confront the nature of consciousness itself and become something of a mystic.
The idea that the physical universe is the end product of a "process of consciousness" is virtually a first principle of Eastern esoteric philosophy, it is at the root of the Kabbalistic doctrine of emanation and the sephiroth, and it has been adopted by many twentieth century magicians as a useful complement to whatever traditional model of magic they were weaned on - once one has accepted that it is possible to create "thought-forms" and "artificial elementals" and "telesmic images", it is a small step to admitting that the gods, goddesses, angels, and pirits of traditonal magic may have no reality outside of the consciousness which creates and sustains them.
This is what I believe personally on alternate days of the week. On the remaining days I am happy to believe in the reality of gods, goddesses, archangels, elementals, ancestral spirits etc. - in common with many magicians I sit on the fence in an interesting way. There is a belief among some magicians that while gods, goddesses etc may be the creations of consciousness, on a par with money and the Bill of Rights, such things take on a life of their own and can be treated as if they were real, so while I take the view that magic is ultimately the manipulation of consciousness, you will find me out there calling on the Powers with as much gusto as anyone else.
2. Magical Consciousness
The principle function of magical ritual is to cause well-defined changes in consciousness. There are other (non-magical) kinds of ritual and ceremony - social, superstitious, celebratory etc - carried out for a variety of reasons, but magical ritual can be distinguished by its emphasis on causing shifts in consciousness to states not normally attainable, with a consequence of causing effects which would be considered impossible or improbable by most people in this day and age.
The realisation that the content of magical ritual is a means to an end, the end being the deliberate manipulation of consciousness, is an watershed in magical technique. Many people, particularly the non-practicing general public, believe there is something inherently magical about ritual, that it can be done, like cooking, from a recipe book; that prayers, names of powers, fancy candles, crystals, five-pointed stars and the like have an intrinsic power which works by itself, and it is only necessary to be initiated into all the details and hey presto! - you can do it. I believe this is (mostly) wrong. Symbols do have magical power, but not in the crude sense implied above; magical power comes from the conjunction of a symbol and a person who can bring that symbol to life, by directing and limiting their consciousness through the symbol, in the manner of icing through an icing gun. Magical power comes from the person (or people), not from the superficial trappings of ritual. The key to ritual is the manipulation and shifting of consciousness, and without that shift it is empty posturing.
So let us concentrate on magical consciousness, and how it differs from the state of mind in which we normally carry out our business in the world. Firstly, there isn't a sudden quantum jump into an unusual state of mind called magical consciousness. All consciousness is equally magical, and what we call magical depends entirely on what we consider to be normal and take for granted.
There is a continuum of consciousness spreading away from the spot where we normally hang our hat, and the potential for magic depends more on the appropriateness of our state for what we are trying to achieve than it does on peculiar trance states. When I want to boil an egg I don't spend three days fasting and praying to God; I just boil an egg. One of the characteristics of my "normal" state of consciousness is that I understand how to boil an egg, but from many alternative states of consciousness it is a magical act of the first order. So what I call magical consciousness differs from normal consciousness only in so far as it is a state less appropriate for boiling eggs, and more appropriate for doing other things.
Secondly, there isn't one simple flavour of magical consciousness; the space of potential consciousness spreads out along several different axes, like moving in a space with several different dimensions, and that means the magician can enter a large number of distinct states, all of which can be considered different aspects of magical consciousness.
Lastly, it is normal to shift our consciousness around in this space during our everyday lives, so there is nothing unusual in shifting consciousness to another place. This makes magical consciousness hard to define, because it isn't something so extraordinary after all. Nevertheless, there is a difference between walking across the road and walking around the world, and there are differences between what I call normal and magical consciousness, even though they are arbitrary markers in a continuum. There is a difference in magnitude, and there is a difference in the "magnitude of intent", that is, will. Magic takes us beyond the normal; it disrupts cosy certainties; it explores new territory. Like new technology, once it becomes part of everyday life it stops being "magical" and becomes "normal".
We learn the "magic of normal living" at an early age and forget the magic of it; normal living affects us in ways which the magician recognises as magical, but so "normal" that it is difficult to realise what is going on. From the point of view of magical consciousness, "normal life" is seen to be a complex magical balancing act, like a man who keeps a hundred plates spinning on canes at the same time and is always on the point of losing one. Magical consciousness is not the extraordinary state: normal life is. The man on the stage is so busy spinning his plates he can spend no time doing anything else.
A characteristic of magical consciousness which distinguishes it from normal consciousness is that in most magical work the magician moves outside the "normally accessible" region of consciousness. Most "normal people" will resist an attempt to shift their consciousness outside the circle of normality, and if too much pressure is applied they panic, throw- up, become ill, have hysterics, call the police or a priest or a psychiatrist, or end up permanently traumatised. Sometimes they experience a blinding but one-sided illumination and become fanatics for a one-sided point of view. Real, detectable shifts in consciousness outside the "normal circle" are to be entered into warily, and the determined ritualist treads a thin line between success, and physical and psychical illness.
A neophyte in Tibet swears that he or she is prepared to risk madness, disease and death, and in my personal experience this is not melodramatic - the risks are real enough. It depends on temperament and constitution - some people wander all over the planes of consciousness with impunity, some find it extremely stressful, and some claim it never did them any harm (when they are clearly as cracked as the Portland Vase). The grosser forms of magic are hard to do because body and mind fight any attempt to move into those regions of consciousness where it is possible to transcend the "normal" and create new kinds of normality.
The switch into magical consciousness is often accompanied by a feeling of "energy" or "power". Reality becomes a fluid, and the will is like a wind blowing it this way and that. Far out. There are several traditional methods for reaching abnormal states of consciousness: dance, drumming, hallucinogenic and narcotic substances, fasting and other forms of privation, sex, meditation, dreaming, and ritual, used singly and in combination. These notes deal only with ritual. Magical ritual has evolved organically out of the desire to reach normally inaccessible regions of consciousness and still continue living sanely in the world afterwards, and once that is understood, its profundity from a psychological point of view can be appreciated.
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