Friday, July 31, 2020

Ritual magic addendum: magical equipment

I’m increasingly thinking I may have to put this blog on hiatus for a few months or longer, as I’ve started a new project that draws on the same pool of mental energy as writing these blog entries draws on.  The amount of writing thereby being produced, while definitely good in-and-of-itself, is barely sustainable now while I’m on holidays, and thus clearly unsustainable once I go back to work in the fall.  I’ll likely still write a few more entries yet, though.

The current entry is an addendum to the previous sorcery lesson, which was in turn a concrete example of principles discussed in the greater magic entry.  Very likely there will be more than one of these addendums coming up, so as to further elaborate on previously-posted stuff.  

This particular addendum is about magical “equipment,” as while the banishing ritual I described was intended to demonstrate that there is very little equipment that ritual magic actually “requires,” there are also various reasons why one may want to get “fancier” and I thus wanted to discuss some nuances of that here.

This entry is divided into three parts:
* * *

Incorporating magical equipment into ritual

If it is indeed possible to perform a banishing ritual - or for that matter, other kinds, as I’ll hopefully talk about in a future entry - successfully without a lot of “stuff,” what then is up with the familiar depiction of ritual magic as involving the use of robes, wands, daggers, chalices, etc.?  Like, do you need this stuff, if so how does it help, and most importantly, what are you actually supposed to do with it?

The simple answer is that for the kind of ritual work I am propagating on this blog, nothing is really needed outside of the elements the previous entry highlighted:

  • A private space in which you can do the ritual undisturbed
  • An altar, which can be very simple and mundane inasmuch as all it is mainly doing here is marking the ‘starting’ direction and providing a flat surface to put things on
  • Something to use as an offering, which as per the example given of using music, need not entail going out and acquiring an additional new object

There are, broadly speaking, two sorts of reasons for adding other things on top of this.  

One is acausal, and thus not something I’ll spend a lot of time on at the moment: if someone believes that their ritual operation is actually putting them in touch with something supernatural, that thing may have stipulations about what is needed to entice its cooperation or what it likes as offerings or etc., and it may then be a good idea, both to encourage success and avoid negative outcomes, to go along with it.  

The causal reason, which is far more relevant to the current discussion, is that incorporating a vivid and stimulating aesthetic component into ritual tends to make it more psychologically-effective.  

Put another way, there are two reasons to get more magical equipment: for sane people, it makes them feel more like sorcerers, and for insane people, ‘the Devil said I should get it.’ ;)

As for actually incorporating additional items and trappings into ritual proceedings, I think it’s most helpful to first consider when/where in the ritual this incorporation could occur, and only after that discuss what actual items and trappings may be useful or appropriate.  

There are three main purposes that magical equipment serves, and these purposes are tied to the overall structure of ritual:

  • At the start: to establish ritual space and time as separate and different from ordinary space-and-time *
  • In the middle: to support intensification in some way, e.g. as a visualization aid
  • At the end: to provide closure in the form of an offering and/or re-emergence back from ritual space and time into ordinary space-and-time

(* Note, as I can’t recall if I’ve stated this before: this way of talking about ritual is taken from academic accounts of ritual by anthropologists.  It’s thus a way of talking about how ritual is transformative from the participants’ standpoint, not a claim of interdimensional travel or etc.  Probably obvious to many readers, but hey. ;))

Reflections on each of these and the equipment appropriate to each follow, below.  There are also a couple items that I consider highly cross-purpose between these categories, which I will then mention at the end of this section.

Start of ritual

The idea here is that by making yourself feel more like a sorcerer and making the space feel more ‘special’ in connection with ritual, the ritual becomes more ‘real’ to you and thus more effective.  Items that may aid in this include:

  • Having special clothing that you only wear during ritual work, which is then put on only at the start of ritual and taken off at the end
  • The equivalent of said special clothing but for the altar, i.e. if you are using a table normally used for other mundane things, get an altar cloth with something occult on it that you put out when doing ritual work and put away at the end
  • A bell, rattle, etc., i.e. something used to make disruptive noise that can be used to mark when the ritual begins and ends

Intensification in the midst of ritual

This refers to the visualization-oriented portion in the middle of the banishing ritual.  As I explained in the greater magic entry, this is the part of the ritual that actually ‘gets the thing done.’  Equipment that augments this experience may include:

  • The use of a crystal or other ‘focus’ object, e.g. holding this while doing the visualizations or incorporating it into them in some way, e.g. visualizing energy going into it or that kind of thing (this latter point is somewhat N/A for banishings, but relevant to other things that can potentially done with ritual, such as empowering a protective amulet that you intend to have with you while doing something that you find daunting).

  • Another type of object that could be very useful as a focus is an idol of some kind on the altar, e.g. visualization that entails being assisted by or otherwise interacting with the represented entity

  • If artistic methods are used during intensification, try to use artistic materials and tools that you set aside only for use specifically in ritual, as per above point about special clothing etc.

Closure of the ritual

The ‘re-emergence into normality’ that ends a ritual typically utilizes the same elements as the start of the ritual, e.g. take off special clothing and other such removal of markers that ‘ritual is in progress.’  What I’ll thus mainly cover here are ideas for offerings:

  • The burning of sage, sweetgrass or other similar herb bundles.  Note that i) this is the main method that I use and ii) other people can call it whatever they like, but I am personally averse to calling this ‘smudging,’ because it not meant to be a duplication or imitation of that cultural practice.

  • Leaving out food or drink.  This one I’ve also done in the past.  Broadly speaking, there are two methods: i) the offering is allowed to return to nature, i.e. libations poured on the ground or allowed to evaporate or etc.; ii) the offering is consumed by the sorcerer sometime after the ritual.  In my past practice, I acted as if i) was how things worked by default vs. if ii) is to be the protocol, this should be stated in the ritual via a phrase such as “…I will give you this offering - the essence for you and the substance for me.”

  • Reading out specially-chosen poetry or other such material.  Not so much a matter of needing to acquire an object, but mentioned here as just another alternative to what was proposed in the ritual previously posted.

I realize this may sound rather vague, especially re: the food-and-drink one, as far as “but what do I actually, specifically use?” goes.  The short and not necessarily helpful response is, use whatever feels appropriate so long as it is of decent quality - see below for more on this.

General use

In addition to the above, there are three items that are highly multi-purpose when it comes to occult matters, being potentially usable in some way or other in connection with all three stages just discussed.  These are:

  • Candles: can be used to mark start of ritual (lighting them) and end of ritual (putting them out), and can also be used in intensification via writing desires to be realized or fears to be banished or etc. on a piece of paper and burning them.  (Note: I think the same one candle can be used for all ritual purposes so long as one constructs the ritual wording in a way that makes the intended significance of the action of burning clear, i.e. whether it is meant to translate whatever is burned into efficacy or to destroy it.  In the LaVeyan practice though, this would be why both a black and white candle are used, as the black is for burning things one is trying to attract vs. the white is for burning things one is trying to send away.)

  • Incense: can be used to mark start and end along similar lines as just stated for candles.  But can also be used to mark subsections of ritual, e.g. there could be a specific incense that you burn only when doing intensification visualizations, or only for the purposes of making offerings.  Usually, I only use a total of one incense per ritual - i.e. either use it in the “I’m starting my ritual now” way or use it in the “this is my offering” way, not both - but I have also occasionally used two different incenses for the two different purposes in the same ritual, in which case the general-ritual one was milder (e.g. a stick) vs. the offering one stronger (e.g. resin burnt on charcoal).

  • Wands or daggers: these basically act as a conductor for whatever is being done, thereby enhancing what one is otherwise doing with one’s hands.  During the starting sequence of the ritual, one can hold these and use them to point in the four directions, rather than just pointing with one’s hands; during the intensification sequence, one may find it useful to point them in the relevant direction and envision them as a conduit through which the appropriate energy flows into you; lastly, they can be used in various ways to mark the end of ritual, e.g. I have long ended rituals by thrusting the dagger downward to touch the floor.  

The multi-purpose nature of these items is such that if the aspiring sorcerer who wants to add some equipment to their practice is on a budget, I would definitely recommend prioritizing getting these - especially inasmuch as candles and incense are both at the cheap end of occult materials.  As to ‘which one’ between wands and daggers, I personally am of the opinion that daggers can be used to do everything that wands do pointing-wise, while at the same time also having additional uses (i.e. I would feel silly doing the dagger-closure I just described with a wand), so I would say that if you are only going to get one of the two items, get the dagger.

* * *

A few principles re: what does and doesn’t ‘matter’

Some people find the practice of sorcery daunting because they’ve read stuff like A. E. Waite’s account of ceremonial magic / Goetia, and are then under the impression that ceremonial magic requires super complicated preparations involving hard-to-acquire materials, things done at particular moon phases or in accord with other astrological phenomena, and other general magic-sounds-like-a-giant-pain-in-the-ass -type elements.  

A valid rationalization of not following those kinds of instructions exactly, but still being able to get results, runs along the following lines, which I derive from E. A. Koetting’s discussion of related matters in his book “Works of Darkness”: 

Back in the day, when many ceremonial magic books were written, the society was built around a majority-consensus regarding Christian belief.  An environment of that kind creates both psychological and moral barriers against the efficacy of ceremonial magic.  This then is compensated for by demanding that the magician go to extreme lengths to fulfill instructions as part of the ritual, as one is then turning the way humans tend to think of sunk costs in one’s favor: clearly, if you put all that effort in, the ritual must work.  

By contrast, in contemporary times, amid much greater diversity of spiritual beliefs, the barriers are lower than in the past: all these different religions are regarded as potentially right, so why shouldn’t my thing work too?  Thus, while there may still be acausal reasons for some of that complicated stuff, from a causal perspective I really don’t think exacting rule-following with regard to acquisition and consecration of equipment is necessary for most modern sorcerers.

Another mental barrier related to ceremonial magic that I’ve observed in some people is fretting about where things are sourced from and/or how much they cost, these factors being treated as indicators of whether the object is in fact “special” enough to be “right” to use in ritual.  A few thoughts I have on matters of this kind:

  • Cost is not an issue.  In folklore, magic is regularly resorted to by desperate peasants; it is, in essence, for getting things that you are not otherwise able to get via normal earthly means; therefore, it must be do-able in circumstances of material lack.  If you feel like something is “cheap” and are embarrassed by that, fair, but recognize then that the issue then is your feelings, not the item’s falling short of some sort of objective standard of “good enough” harbored by the universe.  I guarantee you that anything home-made with genuine effort - e.g. your ritual dagger is a steak knife that you painted black and now use only for ritual - will be “good enough” in the eyes of the universe.

  • Source seeming like an issue is in fact a self-created problem.  i.e. if you feel like things bought from Amazon or from thrift stores are not “magical” enough, it is probably because you have a “participation in mass-market capitalism is vulgar” attitude in the former instance or an “I would be embarrassed to be caught shopping there” attitude in the latter.  These are what other people think issues, and if you are prone to fixating on such things, you are probably also the kind of person who has trouble saying things in ritual out loud because “what would an invisible audience think of me?”  In my mind, a huge part of the benefit of ritual is that the discipline required to do it well itself entails getting other people out of your head, and gaining the confidence to do a thing that is just for you without preoccupation with external social limitations.  I thus strongly encourage people to try to overcome these sorts of feelings.  Just go get the cheap candles already.  It’s fine. :)

On the other hand, here are a few things that I think do matter as far as magical equipment goes:

Consistency of use.  As I suspect was already implicit above, anything used as part of ritual should be set aside solely for that use.  Also, if you start doing ritual regularly, items should be used in the same way at the same points in time on each ritual occasion; the more this is done, the more efficacious ritual tends to become.  This is not to say never change anything - I have changed plenty over the years as my practice has evolved - but at least aim for conscientiousness, i.e. change things intentionally because you've decided symbolically there's a better way of doing it, not because you forgot to do that thing at that one part or etc.

Treat tools with respect.  Many people do this without having to be told, e.g. have an aversion to putting things they use for ritual on the floor or etc.  There’s no specific behaviors I would say “must” be done or avoided, but the attitude of “this is not just any old object” is important to uphold.

Don’t half-ass offerings.  This is one thing I think the Bible got right, if one recalls the story of Cain and Abel: if you want good results when offering food or etc., give the best you can.  Don’t use the fruit that has the bruise on it that you just noticed and now don’t want to eat, or the bad liquor that you are trying to get rid of.  From a causal perspective, it’s a bad attitude inconsistent with wanting genuine transformation out of the ritual.  And from an acausal perspective, it’s simply inconsiderate to serve your non-human friends anything you wouldn’t serve to a good human friend. ;)

The challenge overall with magical equipment is that on one hand, it is good to maintain some mystique in order to maximize ritual efficacy, but on the other hand, one doesn’t want to set a standard of mystique-maintenance that is so high as to be prohibitive of ritual counting as “good,” and thus a discouragement when it comes to actually even performing the ritual magic at all.  The “it matters” stuff above is thus aimed at upholding mystique, while the “it doesn’t matter” stuff is aimed at not getting caught up in it to the point of being self-thwarting.

* * *

A word of experience-based advice to novice sorcerers

I suspect this will risk offending a few people, based on what I see on Instagram of altars now and then, but this is meant as constructive advice, so I hope it will be taken in that light.

When I was younger and first getting into the occult, I would often get enamored of the “idea” of doing ritual magic, buy things potentially useful for ritual but chosen primarily because they were evocative of the aesthetic, and set them on a special shelf that I would think of as an “altar.”  Over time, this area would become quite cluttered with cool-looking-stuff, but not actually get used for ritual.  

Whereas, as I’ve gotten older and become more and more serious about actually doing the ritual magic, I’ve felt more and more strongly that altars should not have anything on them that you are not actually using in a clear, identifiable way in connection with ritual.  Altars should, that is, be predominantly places for tools, not places for identity markers that signal to oneself or those visiting one’s home that, for example, “I’m a cool gothy witch.”  Repositories of the latter are more correctly labeled as ornament shelves, not altars.  There’s nothing wrong with having them, but one ought to be honest with oneself about what they really are.

This may sound snarky re: I am pissing on people who may just practice differently than I do.  The aim of making this point, however, is to discourage a form of complacency about occult matters that I myself have experienced.  It is very easy to fall into a bit of a self-awareness blind spot as an occultist, wherein one so likes thinking of oneself as an occultist that one does not stop to reflect on how little actual occult stuff one does, as opposed to just acquiring the trappings and liking being seen in association with them.  It is what one might call the “too many crystals, not enough actually using spiritual practices to transform yourself into a better and more empowered person” issue.  And I suspect I am not the only middle-aged occultist who suffers from a vague sense of “time and opportunity wasted in youth” in connection with it.

My own past experience is that altar clutter can be an indicative and/or aggravating factor of this kind of thing; perhaps a small one, but still.  I’m not inclined to argue with anyone who gets defensive about such matters, though - it’s just a thought I wanted to share based on what I’ve observed myself.