Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Bad Reviewers Write Bad Reviews

One of the reasons that Red Wheel/Weiser rejected my Operant Magick was that they were concerned the material in the book was too advanced for a general audience. That is, they felt a rank beginner who knew nothing about ritual magick would be confused by some of the ideas presented therein. This is in fact probably the case, and I was very clear about it in the introduction to the book. I even recommended that rank beginners start with some sort of introductory book before moving on to mine, carefully explaining that the book did assume some level of familiarity with the concepts of ritual magick.

Personally, I have little interest in writing some sort of introduction to magick book with a whole chapter devoted to "is magick evil?" or other similar nonsense. Anybody who worries that magick might be evil and needs reassurance shouldn't practice it - such individuals are either too bound by religious conditioning to get much out of the discipline or are simply too stupid to comprehend many of the basic concepts that must be understood by any successful practitioner. An individual of the first sort might be able to practice magick successfully, but only after working through their conditioning loops and hopefully replacing them with more adaptive ones. An individual of the second sort is best off leaving magick alone entirely.

The idea that every book needs to be accessible to everyone, regardless of background, has resulted in an occult marketplace that is glutted with beginner-level material. Practitioners like myself have complained for years that there are no advanced or even intermediate level books being published on a regular basis. My goal in writing a more advanced book was to fill this gap. Certainly there must be enough serious practitioners in the world to support the sales of at least a few titles! Since all of the beginner titles are in competition with each other, it seems to me that you might be able to sell more books as the author of one of five available advanced books rather than one of five hundred available beginner books. Basic economics, that, but I was unable to convince the folks at Red Wheel/Weiser that this justified publishing the book. Perhaps they were really just worried about seeing book reviews like this one.

Some background - Frater Barrabbas is a friend of mine who recently published his second book, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick, Volume 1: Foundation, an actual intermediate-to-advanced level title broken up into three volumes of which this is the first. As far as I can tell this reviewer picked up the book expecting it to be a beginner's guide, got all confused when, well, it wasn't, and proceeded to slam it on that basis.

What is needed is a clear, welcoming book that sets out the basic principles of ritual magic at the beginning, moving coherently through the most useful techniques such as breathwork, visualization, yoga, and the direction of energy, and giving plenty of practical exercises to do along the way. We need a sensible guide that leads you through safely, securely, and with a solid foundation in common sense understanding of why these things are as they are.

So is the reviewer's point that the hundreds of books in print covering this material from a beginner's perspective all suck? Every single one of them? I find that pretty hard to believe - I've come across at least a few that I consider decent for what they are. But unfortunately making a book "clear" and "welcoming" often has the added effect of dumbing down the material.

This is everything that Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick is not.

But do we really need 501 beginner-level books rather than 500?

Never before have I emerged from a book on this subject so confused and alienated – even after reading Crowley!

As far as Aleister Crowley goes, I don't know what the reviewer found confusing but a lot of Crowley's stuff is not that difficult. You can actually train yourself to become a competent ritual magician with a copy of Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae, all of 13 pages long in print, and the tables from Liber 777. There's more advanced material in his works, of course, but those two texts are really all you need to get started on your practices.

The title of this book, by Frater Barrabas

Note that the reviewer didn't even read the book closely enough to spell the author's name correctly. It's BARRABBAS.

suggests to the casual observer that it is a beginner’s guide of some kind, or is the first in a series of books that will focus on giving the reader a solid foundation of practice, theory, and experience.

In fact, it isn't, as the quick Amazon search that the reviewer obviously neglected to do would have revealed. Frater Barrabbas' first book, Disciple's Guide to Ritual Magick, is in fact the "beginner book" of the series. From the reviewer's comments and background it's clear that she should have started the series there.

However, I found this title extremely misleading as throughout the book Frater Barrabas writes about techniques and theories that he barely touches upon: they are briefly mentioned, almost like one might name-drop a famous author you know very little about but whose name sounds impressive in your work, but not discussed at any great length.

One might think that "mastering" in the title would suggest that the book is not for the "casual observer," but to be fair the occult market is full of books with similar titles that promise all sorts of "mastery" and then open with yet another exposition of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. Furthermore, I would point out that much of the material "touched upon" is (1) in the beginner book, which the reviewer clearly did not read, and (2) is mentioned briefly because if every technique mentioned in the book was given the full "beginner book" treatment the damn thing would be over a thousand pages long. Furthermore, toward the end of the review we find this comment:

Overall, Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick presents material that is not new (although Frater B. declares it to be in his Foreword, in which he also states that the material in the book was “too advanced” to be published ten years ago…)

And yet the reviewer expects the book to be totally comprehensible to a beginner with no background in ritual magick? Or does the term "advanced" not mean what she thinks it means? For the record, there is a fair amount of original material in the book, but perhaps the reviewer was too unfamiliar with the Golden Dawn/Crowley school of ritual magick to realize that. I found this comment telling as well:

For instance, the chapter entitled “Ritual Performance” looked promising, and I was hoping to read a thorough examination of how to make ritual look pretty, sound effective – the theatrics of magic. Indeed, Frater Barrabas mentions it briefly at the beginning of the chapter, but the rest of it is taken up by stuff that should have been discussed earlier in the work: ecstatic dance techniques (should have accompanied the section on trance), drawing lines of force, and circumambulations

Ritual magick is not psychodrama and it's not theater, despite some overlap between theatrical and magical methods. Way too many people in the occult community make that mistake. Magick is a technology that you use to produce specific results - change in conformity with will. It's not something that you put on for your friends so they can tell you how cool and magical you are. Combining the various energy-raising techniques and methods for drawing lines of force is exactly what "ritual performance" should consist of. It doesn't really matter how a ritual looks or sounds to an outside observer as long as it gets the job done.

So when I finally do get my book published, is putting up with bad reviews like this what I have to look forward to? Probably. Hopefully as more intermediate-to-advanced books become available reviewers will start to figure out that these books need to be reviewed by an expert in the field. I mean, this particular reviewer is a 24-year-old Pagan Tarot reader who practices Vodou. That gives her expertise in ritual magick how? You would never see anything similar going on with academic or scientific writing, and once we get past the "beginners only" mindset of the major publishers I hope that the review process for magical writing will evolve along the same lines.

UPDATE: I appear to have started a trend. Two more counter-reviews along similar lines have shown up here and here. Maybe one of these days publishers will finally figure out that there's a market for more advanced material.

Want to buy your own copy of Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick by Frater Barrabbas? Order from my Books and Media page and you can help support Augoeides.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Congolese Child "Witches"

Keeping with last week's theme of witchcraft persecutions, an alaming trend has recently been observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Children as young as seven years old are being accused of witchcraft by religious leaders and subjected to painful "exorcisms" - for a fee.

According to a United Nations report issued this year, a growing number of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being accused of witchcraft and subjected to violent exorcisms by religious leaders, in which they are often beaten, burned, starved and even murdered. The relatively new phenomenon has become one of the main causes in Central Africa for humanitarian groups, which are organizing programs to protect children's rights and educate pastors on the dangers of accusing children.

Magical powers take years if not decades to develop and rarely manifest before the onset of puberty. Aptitude alone doesn't make you a magician - it generally takes years of study and disciplined practice. The idea that a seven-year-old child could be an effective magician is pretty ridiculous, but pastors who claim to be speaking the words of the "Holy Spirit" as they accuse these unfortunate children tend to be believed nonetheless.

Standing before a wooden cross, Pastor Moise Tshombe, in a robe adorned with pictures of Jesus, went into a trance. Claiming to be speaking through the Holy Spirit, he declared, "These children are witches."

Moments later, with Isaac and Chanel by her side, the children's grandmother, Marie Nzenze, said she believed the charges. "God has spoken through the mouth of the prophet," she said. "God has not lied."

It should go without saying that this sort of faith is dangerous, especially to the children accused. God may not lie, but seven-year-olds also can't do magick. That suggests to me that the speaker is someone or something other than God - that is, unless it's just the voice of Tshombe himself out to make a buck.

The practice, which has also been reported in Nigeria and Angola, can be lucrative for the priests who perform them.

Pastor Tshombe charged Julie Moseka $50 to exorcise her emaciated daughter, Noella, 8. The average annual salary in Congo is $100.

That would be like me going to my neighbor and telling them they needed to pay me $20,000 because their kid is a witch. How do I know? Well, God told me, of course!

When asked whether he thinks Jesus would approve of what he's doing, Tshombe said, "Why wouldn't he be happy? I'm just using the gifts given to me by the Holy Spirit."

And Jesus wants you to be rich, right? Just like he wants televangelists to have fancy cars and vacation houses in the Bahamas. Because Jesus said time and again that it's the rich who will have the easiest time entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh, wait...

Even worse are the stories of those children whose families cannot afford the exorcisms. The stigma of being accused often results in them being thrown out onto the street where they live as best they can in extreme poverty.

Liana Bianchi, the administrative director for the humanitarian group Africare, says the trend is partly the result of decades of war and economic decline in the Congo. The non-profit group Save the Children estimates that 70% of the roughly 15,000 street children in Kinshasa, the capital, were kicked out of their homes after being accused of witchcraft.

This is truly a case where ignorance of how magick works can result in real human tragedy, especially if there are plenty of folks willing to exploit that ignorance for the sake of profit.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Totally Missing the Point

I came across this article the other day, and it strikes me as a perfect example of completely missing the point regarding the witchcraft persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This seems as good a time as any to admit to a possibly controversial personal belief: of those accused of witchcraft over the ages, especially in Europe and its colonies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and put to death, I am certain a dreadful percentage were innocents, but, by the same token, I am equally certain some percentage were guilty of actual witchcraft and trafficking with fiends.

It's actually not much of a controversy to suggest that a significant number of those executed by the Inquisition were in fact practitioners of some sort of esoteric spiritual or magical system regarded as heretical by the Church. I can think of one for sure off the top of my head - Giordano Bruno.

While none of the tests in the Malleus Maleficarum actually work to identify magicians and the activities that many of the accused confessed to under torture bear no resemblance to the practices of any real school of magick, some of the accusations themselves were probably rooted in fact. I mean, I'm sure that at least a few people were using the grimoires that were available at that time, which would probably qualify as "trafficking with fiends" in eyes of Inquisitors. As far as the numbers go, if you include the Cathars who were practically wiped out during the Albigensian crusade it could perhaps be the case that half of those executed were "guilty" in the eyes of the Church.

The thing is, though, that what was wrong about the Inquisition was not that it executed people who were falsely accused of practicing magick, but rather that it executed people for exploring alternative spiritual practices - whether or not they had actually done so. Even if every single person who was tried and found guilty by the "witchfinders" had actually practiced some form of magick the whole thing still would have been brutal, barbaric, and inexcusable. The fact that innocent people were persecuted merely adds incompetence to the already extensive list of crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Inquisitors.

Angels and devils are as real as the Risen Christ, and devils live to ensnare mortal souls by enticing them into heresy and sin. So, why not witchcraft?

While I agree that spirits fitting the description of angels and devils exist, the Manichean univalence of Christian theology isn't the best way to classify them. The basic Christian model seems to be that any minion of the Christian God is an angel and all other spiritual entities that exist across the whole universe, even entities from different religious pantheons who otherwise fit the Christian idea of goodness, are devils. That strikes me as kind of silly, in that it assumes a "with us or against us" mindset that is not particularly enlightened.

I'm not talking about magic or somesuch superstitious nonsense, I am talking about the select use of the profane power still present in devils from their time as angels before the Rebellion and War in Heaven.

So would working with a grimoire constitute "superstitious nonsense" even though the author clearly believes that it is possible to summon "devils?" Maybe the author is contrasting magic (stage magic) with magick (the spiritual arts) here, because otherwise it's kind of a confusing sentence.

Old Scratch is real, his legions of devils are real, and I find no reason to believe that there are not sons of Adam and daughters of Eve so debased as to have surrendered themselves in service to the Archfiend's infernal will, to the peril of their immortal souls.

There are demons in world, yes. I've summoned them and I know that they exist. I can say the same for angels. However, if you surrender your will to a demon that's called possession, not magick. The angels and demons that I work with are directed by my will, not the other way around.

I understand that as the author appears to be a conservative Christian he or she probably disagrees with that statement and just about any other that I'm likely to make about the nature of magick. Nonetheless, I would hope it should be obvious that torturing and killing me over those disagreements would be fundamentally wrong, and that it was fundamentally wrong in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More Fake Magicians

I haven't posted much in the way of news stories lately, so I figure it's about time that I did. I've blogged a number of times about con artists posing as magicians around the world, and sure enough that sort of thing is still going on, this time in Dubai.

A man stole Dh2.5 million from his company and handed it over to an acquaintance who had promised to double the amount through witchcraft, a Dubai Police official told Khaleej Times on Wednesday.

Maybe it's just me, but this would immediately arouse my suspicions no matter how much I believed in the power of magick. Let's say that you have a spell that doubles money. Why not start with a dollar and cast the spell every day for a month, keeping your money in the pool to take advantage of compounding? At the end of 30 days you would have more than half a billion dollars! 2.5 million seems pretty paltry compared to that.

The suspect, a Tunisian national, initially claimed that the money was snatched from his hands by an African man who had sprayed liquid in his eyes as he left a bank branch in Al Baraha.

The police official, who asked not to be named, said CID officers investigating the incident found that the suspect had in fact stolen the money from his company.

This is a pretty flimsy story, so obviously we're not dealing with a criminal mastermind. Was the money supposed to be in a briefcase or something? You couldn't just hold it in your hand. 2.5 million dollars in cash is really heavy - in fact probably too heavy for someone to just grab and run off with, at least quickly.

Three Africans have also been held as police continue their investigations. Claiming to perform witchcraft is a criminal offence under UAE laws.

And this is why what might otherwise be a story of an idiot who got greedy hurts all of us. If I lived in the UAE those same laws would pretty much make a blog like this illegal since I'm out as a practicing magician. I'm not interested in conning anyone, but I do want to be able to practice my system of spirituality without government interference. One more reason to support the separation of church and state here in the United States.

UPDATE: According to Dubai police, 16 people have been arrested in connection with the scam and most of the money has been recovered. It sounds like quite the operation, and I wonder how much it took in before coming to the attention of the authorities.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Magical Energy

On the previous thread, Gordon_Finn and I got into a discussion of using energy of various sorts to power paranormal phenomena such as the physical manifestations of spirits. He suggested using the electricity from a stun gun as an energy source for the following reasons:

Electricity is very efficient and it's very abundent. It's a common type used by spirits. Cold spots show up because the spirits are drawing on the ambient heat (both kinetic and em/infrared forms), so the area around them is colder. They're trying to maintain a material existence, while there, so they gotta get it from somewhere.

I guess I've never heard of spirits drawing on electricity so I don't know how common it is. There was one haunting that I heard about where the electric meter seemed to run unusually fast that I heard about, but for the most part I don't think spirits generally consume power in that way. Furthermore, the meter could just have been broken in that one case and might not have had anything to do with the haunting. Gordon's description of how spirits seem to use ambient heat is to my knowledge basically correct, but electricity and electromagnetic radiation (including heat) are two completely different things - electromagnetic radiation made up of photons while electricity is made up of electrons. How this difference affects spirits is hard to say.

The EM fields, including heat, put off by electrical circuits are the incidental result of transmission inefficiencies in the wiring. A stun gun will put out a nice burst of EM energy and heat because air is a poor conductor of electricity, but it seems to me that in many cases manifestations need sustained heat or radiation to draw upon. You might do better with a space heater or a device more like a radio transmitter than creates waves of a specific frequency. That's probably one of the functions of the pot of incense in evocations - in addition to smoke it produces a lot of heat. I also have experimented with powered orgone generators that create a pulsed magnetic field around a crystal embedded in a mixture of epoxy and metal filings (aka "orgonite"), and those devices do seem to put off something that feels like the "energy" that accompanies spirit conjurations. I've never really considered trying to get a spirit to convert that energy into psychokinetic phemonema, but I may give it a try one of these days. I'll be sure to keep you all posted.

But this speculation brings us to the larger question of the mechnism used by spirits to influence the physical world. In The Spiritist Fallacy, Rene Guinon makes a convincing argument that for spirits to have any sort of influence on the physical world at least some portion of them must be physical. Modern parapsychologists pretty much agree with this assertion, and thus use various implements such as EM meters when investigating the sites of alleged hauntings and other spirit-related phenomena. As magicians, I believe that it behooves us to understand what the physical portion of a spiritual entity is composed of and how it can interact with material objects. A precise understanding of this relationship should allow us to construct spells much more effectively and understand the physical limitations of magical operations.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with the proprietor of my favorite occult bookstore here in the Twin Cities and he commented that he had met someone who was trying to find people working evocations who did not use any sort of "energy" metaphors. Apparently this individual believed that the "power" of the magician had nothing to do with evocations and that the effects that resulted were solely the work of the spirits conjured. I can't say that this model is wrong, but I will say that as I've gotten better at working magick my spells have gotten better too, and also that energy work techniques like Qigong really seem to help manifestations along if you incorporate them into ritual. It is possible that all they really do is serve to get the spirits' attention or something like that, but for whatever reason different practitioners do seem to get different results even when they follow the same procedures.

It is unfortunately true that a lot of magicians talk about "magical energy" in an vague way and the term can mean a lot of different things depending on the speaker's perspective on magical operations. To adherents of the psychological model of magick, the term is used in a similar way to how it is applied in psychoanalysis and describes an emotional rather than a physical quality. A "powerful" spell according to this model is one that produces a strong and distinct shift in consciousness or calls up strong emotions. This is not a particularly useful thing to try and quantify for anyone other than yourself simply because it is so subjective. It could perhaps be evaluated with large-scale surveys subjected to statistical analysis, but even so I suspect it would prove hard to pin down. I also don't find it all that useful to treat "powerful" as a synonym for "moving" as it is certainly possible for a ritual to call up an emotional response and accomplish little else.

One of the challenges in putting together the operant field model of magick was devising a scale by which the strength of magical spells could be evaluated. The solution I arrived at was to conceptualize the strength of a spell based on the probability shift that it produces, much as Peter Carroll outlines in Liber Kaos but with some additional variables. This yields a simple numerical formula by which different spells can be compared and analyzed. On my scale a value of 1 represents pure chance, which is the result that would be expected without any magical effect, and the scale can increase arbitrarily as the probability shift increases. A spell that causes an event with a probability of .10 (10%) is rated at 10, a spell that causes an event with a probability of .01 (1%) is rated at 100, and so forth. With this scale the vagueries of "magical power" can be calculated using two variables, the likelihood of the event in question and whether or not the spell succeeded or failed.

Still, the actual mechanism behind these probability shifts remains hard to pin down. Some of this is due to the uncertainty of quantum reality and the lack of tools that can measure things like wavefunctions, and some is due to consciousness being one of the key variables in any magical operation. We don't have tools that can measure the mind directly, and while neuroscience has gotten closer in recent years it is only helpful up to a point. My working hypothesis is that consciousness can produce small shifts in spacetime that can manipulate the probability gradients of quantum wavefunctions without collapsing them, like low-intensity quantum gravity, but whether or not that hypothesis will stand up to modern physics once we begin to explore the subquantum level is anyone's guess. Perhaps some of the results from the new Large Hadron Collider will prove useful in working out the relationship between magick and quantum physics, or maybe they'll throw it all out the window and I'll have to start from scratch.

So here's my question for readers - what are your thoughts on "magical energy?" What is it, how does it work, and have any of you done experiments that might shed some light on its nature? I look forward to hearing from you.