Friday, January 18, 2008

Review: Ritual Versus Ceremonial Magick

A while back I received a copy of Joseph Lisiewski's Ceremonial Magic & The Power of Evocation as a gift from a fellow magician who bought it based on the promotional description and of course the cover art, which is just plain cool. When I read through the book, though, I found it absolutely infuriating. Lisiewski is convinced that the only kind of magick that can ever work has to be performed by following one of the old grimoires to the letter, without making any changes or innovations to the ceremonial forms. He even goes so far as to equate someone who spends years learning and perfecting modern magical forms to the sort of idiot who makes statements like "I set up my magical circle when I put on my belt" - simply because Golden Dawn magick is not a literal reproduction of a grimoire text dating from before 1350.

As I thought more about it, though, I realized that part of my reaction was due to the fact that what Joseph Lisiewski and I do magically are fundamentally different - Lisiewski is a ceremonial magician whereas I am a ritual magician. To most people, and even the majority of practitioners, “ritual magick” and “ceremonial magick” are synonymous. However, there is an important difference between the two terms. In a magical and/or spiritual context, ritual is defined ( as:

1. an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite.
2. a system or collection of religious or other rites.
3. observance of set forms in public worship.
4. a book of rites or ceremonies.
5. a book containing the offices to be used by priests in administering the sacraments and for visitation of the sick, burial of the dead, etc.
6. a prescribed or established rite, ceremony, proceeding, or service: the ritual of the dead.

Ceremony, on the other hand, is defined somewhat differently in the same context:

2. a formal religious or sacred observance; a solemn rite: a marriage ceremony.

The difference between the two is that a ritual consists of the necessary instructions for performing a ceremony, whereas a ceremony refers to a specific performance of a given ritual. Ceremonial magicians like Lisiewski work from grimoires. They do not write or develop their own rituals, but rather adhere as closely as possible to the ritual as specified in the text. The reason that Lisiewski's book is annoying to me is not that it is wrong, exactly, but that he covers ceremonial methods while asserting that they are the only possible way that anyone could get magical results. Also, his condescension toward anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't help matters. While there is nothing wrong with practicing ceremonial magick and ceremonial techniques work for many magicians, for me such an inflexible approach is not particularly compatible with Scientific Illuminism as it tends to enshrine past magical techniques as unchanging dogma.

A ritual magician looks deeper into the mechanics of magick and designs ceremonies based on his or her understanding and insight. In my own professional field of software development, the difference between a ceremonial and a ritual magician is similar to the difference between a coder and a designer. Purely ceremonial magicians like Lisiewski are essentially technicians – they know their rituals and understand when and how to use them, and possess the technical skill to produce good results. Ritual magicians work at the level of liturgy and rubric, creating and testing new magical forms in order to buildup a repository of innovative magical techniques that can address new problems beyond the scope of the old grimoires, or address the same problems more efficiently and effectively.

The fundamental problem with the "pure ceremonial" approach is that even the grimoires written before 1350 must have come from somewhere. The Renaissance "Faustian Grimoires" are almost certainly fakes - they came out after the Faust legend became popular and detail remarkably similar ritual procedures to those found in the fictional account - so an earlier cutoff date is not completely out of line, but for earlier grimoires some ritual magician must have sat down and put the text together. I see no reason why a magician who lived during the Middle Ages would necessarily be able to write a better ritual than I can, given the sheer volume of information that the modern world makes available to me as sources.

It would be truly fascinating to see how these Medieval ritualists complied and tested their texts. The Enochian system of John Dee and Edward Kelley enjoys a fearsome reputation among modern magicians, perhaps because it is literally the only example we have of a complex magical system where the actual transcripts of the spiritual operations that led to its creation are available. This leads to a lot of controversy among practitioners, but it is also a goldmine for ritual magicians everywhere - the building blocks of the system are laid out for study in their original context. The system is also by most accounts particularly effective, maybe because of all the innovations that this open structure enables or maybe because the older grimoires have been degraded by centuries of copying errors.

In the end, it is more Lisiewski's exclusivist attitude that makes his book less worthwhile than it might otherwise be than any particular technical errors. He includes an annoted version of the Heptameron, a famous Medieval grimoire, and gives solid instructions on how to use it. I prefer ritual magick to ceremonial magick simply because I'm essentially a hacker by nature and I'm always looking to enhance and improve my techniques. On the other hand, a ceremonialist will probably that find the book does have some useful advice as long as he or she ignores the pontification.

Want to buy your own copy of Ceremonial Magick and the Power of Evocation by Joseph Lisiewski? Order from my Books and Media page and you can help support Augoeides.

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Unknown said...

Nice post. However, Crowley uses the term "Ceremonial" (in respect to Magick) at the beginning of Book IV part II and elsewhere.

Perhaps you are working from a different definition here?

Crowley's system is actually more dogmatic than I believe a lot of people are willing to admit ("The Cirle", "the Wand", etc.) in respect to basic modus operandi, but not to the extent of Lisiewski apparently. For example, IMO, the breadth of Thelema could include study and experimentation with the techniques of a De Abano. But to have your basis with a De Abano and nothing outside of that is more than a little stifling (and as you suggest, stupid).

Scott Stenwick said...

I'm actually not sure that the term "ritual magick" shows up in any of Crowley's work. You are correct that he tends to use "ceremonial magick" as an umbrella term that includes both ritual and ceremonial magick as I define them here.

I think making a distinction along these lines is useful because it points out different approaches to magical work. Crowley clearly fits my definition of a "ritual magician" - a "ceremonial magician" as I define it would, for example, stick with the traditional Abramelin ritual rather than reworking it into something like Liber Samekh.

I find it very limiting to approach magick from the standpoint of using nothing but old grimoire texts, but I have done a fair amount of work with John Dee's Heptarchia Mystica and that certainly falls under my "ceremonial magick" definition.

By the way, Lisiewski does not argue that the Heptameron is the only grimoire that you can use and I didn't mean to give that impression. There are a number of others that he mentions - the Heptameron is just the one he prefers to use and the one that he includes in his book.

Scott Stenwick said...

Another thought this morning - it would be interesting to see if the definitions for "ritual" and "ceremony" are the same or different in Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Crowley's favorite reference work. The definitions that I am working from are current American English, and they may have changed in the last century.

As of 2005, I see that Skeat's dictionary is back in print and I should probably pick up a copy one of these days. There are a number of cases where knowing the exact definition Crowley had in mind would be especially useful.

Unknown said...

Just a few points for your consideration.

Crowley clearly fits my definition of a "ritual magician" - a "ceremonial magician" as I define it would, for example, stick with the traditional Abramelin ritual rather than reworking it into something like Liber Samekh.

Crowley initially began by the script of Abramelin as his purchase of Boleskine, the composition of the squares, etc. all would appear to indicate. He also viewed the London revolt as within the lens of the overall commitments he had made ("The Bornless Ritual" having been used by the old G.D. folks and the Chief of the Order being the translator of Abramelin). Additionally, its not my understanding that Abramelin amounts to a ritual per se but is rather a lengthy operation towards a particular end (K & C). Crowley certainly applied "The Bornless Invocation" to that end, and adapted this to his immediate situation (a trek across a part of China with mother and daughter in tow at one juncture). On the other hand, in turn, Crowley received his own Abramelin operation which he standarized from the 8th AEthyr in "The Vision and the Voice" and which currently informs the A.'.A.'. system. From this I would argue that Crowley understood the fundamentals in regard to the system of Abramelin, but was not beyond implementing a "ceremonial" approach to this on the basis of his own authority by time of the reception of Liber 418.

BTW, I don't see any entries for "ceremonial" or "ritual" in my copy of Skeats.

Scott Stenwick said...

In addition to Abramelin/Liber Samekh I'm of the opinion that Crowley did a lot of other work that could be classified as "ritual" by my definition. Many of the A.'.A.'. rituals that Crowley put together are generally based on Golden Dawn forms but show particular innovation and elaboration - for example, the Star Ruby, Star Sapphire, and Liber Reguli. I also consider the recording of revealed rituals to fall outside my "ceremonial" definition simply because they are not reproductions of previous texts.

But here I think I may be getting overly pedantic. That's too bad about there being no listing in Skeats - it would have been interesting to compare and contrast. Maybe I'll have to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary the next time I have access to one of those.