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February 02, 2019
A Basic Theory of Ritual Magic
Modern magic heavily favors a so-called "intentional" approach which distinguishes it from other forms of magic. In history and in fiction, one can find ample examples of discredited forms of magic, such as possessing a supernatural ring that shoots fire, or drinking a potion made from boiled toads that turns one into a witch, or incanting a Latin prayer backwards in order to summon a demon that gives you a bag of gold. What these forms have in common is that, well, no one actually has actually ever done any of these successfully. But we ordinary people do have the ability to harness the power of our intention, sometimes called will-power, to make incredible things happen all the time.
Intention is something we can gleam from our thoughts and surroundings. When the sky becomes full of grey clouds, we can say it looks like rain is intended. When we light a devotional candle to a patron saint, we pass our intentions up to a higher power that we hope will intervene. Therefore, intention functions both as a verb and as a noun, the driving force behind the magician’s operations as well as the result of the magical operation. This sort of polymorphism, where one overarching phenomenon takes multiple forms, is itself magical.
This interchange between higher-and-lower, or the present and the future that has yet to come, is an interaction between the actual and the intentional. Intention occupies a different realm than the physical world. Some practitioners who see the world as having "physical" and "divine" aspects, may claim that the realm of intention is a higher plane of existence than the one we inhabit. In traditional magical systems, this "higher" aspect can be called Awen (Welsh), Ashe/Ase (Yoruba and other African diaspora traditions), Mana (Melanesian and Polynesian), Ein Sof (Qabala), and any number of other roughly similar concepts from other cultures.
A more unified and secular term is "source" (which is also a pun on "sorcerer"). Some, especially today, take a more reductive approach and argue that intention is just a mental faculty- one that exists, but within our psychology. In these reductive views, magic is real, but it is a mental faculty that allows us to exert our higher driving intention over our more chaotic subconscious selves.
None of these are bad approaches, but they falter in the sense that they tend to imply a dualism of sorts. In this dualism, the realm of intention is "above" the world of experience. And in the case of the reductive approach, pushing intention as a kind of cerebral process comes with a kind of elitism, in the sense that one has to be a brainiac to do magic in the first place. Are the realms of intention (whether somewhere in the mind, or somewhere higher up in the cosmos) and experience really that separated? If they were, how could intention intervene in the world as action, and how could our experience of those stormy clouds tell us that the sky intends to rain?
Intention and it’s role in magic may be viewed in a different light. Like two blocks of wood pressed together then penetrated and linked by an archer's arrow, I propose a form of ritual magic where one takes intention from the bottom to the top, and back down again. Those familiar with astrology and tarot may immediately think of Sagittarius, the archer, or the Art card:
Tabula Mundi tarot copyright © 2011-2016 Art – M.M. Meleen
Getting Down to Business: The Steps of Ritual/Ceremony Construction
There are a few things you should consider before starting your ritual. How does the ritual fulfill your intentions? How does it aid in discovering your intentions? Magic, especially modern magic, tends to be unifying rather than dualistic. The goal is to unify the higher (mind/divine) and lower (physical/experiential). Magicians do this by making things happen through uniting themselves with the universe at-large, by spell-casting (magic) and/or being mindful (mysticism). Lastly, it is crucial to record every step in a journal along with all external factors that affect you and the operation. This is one of the only ways to observe and adjust your practice as you develop.
Let's look at performing a ritual in two phases, each with three steps. The first phase consists of the opening or preparatory part. The second phase is where the action takes place.
Phase I: The Flux
Phase II: The Flow
Flux comes from metallurgy and refers to cleaning prior to joining two metals.
I) The Banishing
A banishing is a ritual in and of its own. It serves to clear out the physical location as well as the magician's mind. Banishing rituals can be really complex (such as the Greater Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram from the Golden Dawn materials), or as simple as drawing a circle on the ground to signify that everything outside of the circle is no longer welcome. Banishing can be compared to kicking out unwanted guests from the house and then locking the doors and closing the blinds. It is not simply that one evicts what doesn't belong there. Rather, and more importantly, one is marking a clear boundary between what does and does not pertain to the magical operation.
A good way to banish is to use instruments that work with air — incense or burned herbs. These physically help by putting one in a different space, one that is hazy and obscures the environment, and the sillage (the fragrant trail left behind) gives one the sense that one occupies a different environment. Common herbs or incenses used for banishing are cedar, juniper, various sage species, and others.
II) The Purification
Purification follows a good banishing. While banishing serves as a way to compartmentalize the magician's thoughts, purification sets up the scene for performing magic. To use household terms again, banishing is like moving things off of a shelf, and purification is like dusting the shelf once the larger clutter is gone. This serves to loosen up the stray thoughts that can hold one back. Purification sanctifies a space by allowing one to refine what the act of banishing started.
Purification tends to be a water operation. One simple way to purify is to sprinkle water in the area in need of cleansing, anoint foreheads with oil, or even take a ritual bath (some devotional practices require that one do this prior to prayer). Try mixing purified water with salt or lemon or lavender essential oils for this. The Cleansing and Renewal Mist is also a great option.
III) The Consecration
Consecration takes the now perfected space and brings it alive. It shouldn't surprise anyone that consecration relies on fire. Candles are a great way to get started, and even very accomplished magicians rely on candles to invite the sacred into their ritual space once this space has undergone a proper banishing and purification.
But one doesn't need to rely on literal fire or candles. Dancing or any other energetic movements that create friction are a kind of fire in the sense that they raise body heat.
Having combined air, water, and fire together, one might wonder if elemental earth has a place in all of this. Of course, it does!
Just as a building needs a foundation, so, too, do magical operations. As the three previously mentioned elements are then bound together by symbolic earth, this cohesion generates the physical basis or precondition for sorcery to manifest.
IV) The Attunement
In this step, the magician serves as a link or conduit between the ground (in this case, the physical temple or realm one has prepared during the Flux phase) and the higher source one seeks to work with (by whatever name one wishes to call it- the spirit world? The universe? Heaven? It is your call). In more devotional forms of magic, here is where one will invoke the highest aspect of the divine, calling upon it for assistance or inspiration. In more reductive forms of magic, here one will imagine one's perfected self, the actual magician one aspires to be. The purpose of this step is to take yourself — the person you are day-by-day — out of the equation, and instead let things pass through you from above (or deep in your mind), down into the world of experience and action.
To use a music metaphor, this step is like plugging in all of the equipment to each other. A turntable has to be connected to an amplifier and then to speakers. The next step is like choosing a record to put on that turntable.
IV) The Declaration of Intent
In this step, one comes up with a definitive statement that describes what they want to do. It must be precise, as vague wishes tend to either never come true, or come true in ways one doesn't actually want. One might be tempted to ask for a large sum of money — but such a vague demand may come with strings attached. A better way is to formulate these magical intentions in terms of a path one will take to achieve that outcome.
When declaring one's intent, make it personal by prefacing the statement with something like "I shall do everything within my capacity to attain the following goal —" and then carefully, precisely express that goal. Popular ways of declaring intent, based on the kind of ritual you are performing, is to write your wishes on paper and then burn the paper in your candle's flame, or to scribe your intentions onto the candle themselves so the intentions are realized as the candle burns, uniting the physical with the spiritual.
In doing this, regard it as forming a contract between your higher, guiding self (or your patron deity) and your mundane self, the one that will execute those steps through day-to-day action.
If one is going for a more mystical route, it is in this phase that one comes into communication and finds a message either from a distant source or the deep recesses of their subconsciousness, the way one gets a message from astrological information, a ouija board or tarot cards. In this step, the message is still in a raw form, and needs to be worked with further, or rather interpreted.
“Gourock, West Scotland, Winter” by Steven Robinson Pictures
VI) The Unification of the Symbolic and Tangible
In this final step, one has opened oneself up to suggestion or guidance from a power they will defer to. But so far, the intention has only been in plain language. In this step, one needs to transmute their intention from plain language into symbolic form.
This is where you can be the most creative. Some prefer to use talismans, binding the experience of the divine onto a plain object that they can put on their shelf or keep around their neck in order to continually remind themselves of their declaration of intent. Others may prefer to draw a sigil, which is just another word for symbol, that reminds them of their intent.
The possibilities really are up to you — you can be as creative or elaborate as you want with this part, or simply use something that reminds you of the intent you made. For example, in some devotional practices, magicians use statues or candles based on deities, folk-heroes or saints that have qualities that resemble the intent of the operation. There is nothing wrong with using something pre-made, and in some cases, this is actually preferable as it reinforces the qualities they wish to work with.
Sean Alexander has studied at New York University, The University of Chicago, and at the University of California Irvine. He is an independent author and freelance writer from the Los Angeles area, specializing in the occult and other curiosities. He is also a decorated veteran of the United States Army. Read his bio here, and catch more of his work at Hustlevania.
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