Thursday, March 31, 2011

SUVs Are The New Broomsticks

In South Africa witches have apparently traded in their brooms for Yukon Denalis. At least, that's according to the latest gossip fueling angry mobs. On the surface I suppose it makes sense - I have yet to see a broom with heated leather seats, though the mileage on a Yukon leaves something to be desired.

Back in 2008 I commented on a speech given by a religious leader in Uganda, who claimed that the practice of witchcraft was contributing to widepread poverty among the Alur people. My impression was that this sounded more like fundamentalist propaganda than any sort of real plan to improve the standard of living among the Alur. "Trusting in God" may sound all fine and good, but it's not exactly helpful to someone who is so poor that they are barely surviving.

In the Limpopo region of South Africa, though, a related dynamic can be seen in action. It's not the actual practice of magick or witchcraft that is causing the problem, but rather the rumors and accusations spread by jealous neighbors. Here the economic side of witch persecutions is plain to see, in that if someone becomes more successful than his or her neighbors charges of witchcraft are often not far behind.

Recently empowered rural people are increasingly being accused of witchcraft by jealous neighbours, sometimes with grave consequences, Limpopo police said on Wednesday.

"Now you are a witch because you are driving a four-by-four. This is the mentality that people have," said provincial police spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi.

Grandmother Mupala Motopela, 81, and her grand daughter, Cynthia Lemaho, 26, were stoned to death and then set alight by a mob in Maake village outside Tzaneen at the weekend after being accused of witchcraft. Lemaho is survived by two children, aged two and 12, who managed to escape unharmed.

Mulaudzi said this was the fourth incident in villages in Limpopo in the past three months where people were either assaulted or killed after being accused of witchcraft.

"Once people start amassing wealth, getting bigger houses and sending their children to better schools, it means you are engaging yourself in witchcraft.

"People think something is helping you do that [amass wealth] and then they accuse you of witchcraft."

The grain of truth behind this is that upward mobility is so difficult in most societies that without a lot of luck it just isn't possible, especially in a society such as South Africa which has a level of income disparity that is among the highest in the world.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Strings or Poltergeists?

One of the most disappointing things about evidence of the paranormal is that usually the skeptics are right - most of the time it's either faked or misinterpreted. The latest piece making the rounds on the Internet is a video recorded by a family in Coventry, England, of an alleged poltergeist that haunts their home.

Lisa Manning and her two children have been living in fear following hundreds of eerie goings-on.

Ashtrays have been flung through the air and they once came home to find their dog lying motionless at the bottom of the stairs, with serious injuries.

Vets said it was as if their pet, who later died, had been pushed down the stairs in their home.

And if you were thinking there’s no such thing as ghosts – the sinister happenings have been caught on a secret camera set up by Miss Manning’s partner.

In what could be a scene from horror flick Paranormal Activity, the footage shows a chair sliding across the room as cupboard doors slam open and shut.

What the video actually shows is a cupboard opening - but not closing - on its own along with the sliding chair. That's significant because it's very easy to make a door open on its own with a piece of string, but a lot harder to make it close using the same method. Similarly, the chair moves across the floor as though dragged by one of the legs, the bottoms of which remain curiously out of frame.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wiccan Fired Over Non-Existent Spell

Carole Smith was an employee of the Transportation Safety Authority in Albany, New York. She also happens to be a Wiccan. As proof that prejudice and stupidity are alive and well even here in the United States where people supposedly have freedom of religion, Smith was accused of casting a malicious spell by one of her co-workers. The resulting fallout from the accusation led to her being fired by the TSA.

Carole Smith was one of the best at finding weapons in luggage at New York's Albany International Airport but despite this she was fired after a series of incidents starting with a complaint from a co-worker that Miss Smith had cast a spell on her.

Though she was still on probation, having only worked at the airport seven months, before the complaint she only had minor disciplinary actions, for forgetting her name tag, staying too long on a break and being a few minutes too late.

In March 2009, the TSA assistant director told her he was investigating a threat of workplace violence. He said that her former mentor, Mary Bagnoli, reported she was afraid of Smith because she practised witchcraft.

She accused Miss Smith of following her on the highway one evening after work and casting a spell on the heater of her car, causing it not to work, though she later admitted she had not actually seen Miss Smith's car.

The logic here? Scott Adams described it best in The Joy of Work as "Reaching Bizarre Conclusion Without Any Information," with his example being "The car won't start. I'm certain the spark plugs have been stolen by rogue clowns." Only in this case, it's "I'm certain that witch cast a spell on the heater." How did Bagnoli know? Apparently her evidence is that she didn't see Smith casting the spell. What, because not seeing Smith at the time meant she was hiding and therefore obviously up to no good?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Planetary Magick

This article is a rough transcript of the presentation I gave this last weekend at Paganicon 2011. My presentation was somewhat lightly attended, but unfortunately I wound up scheduled against the guest of honor, John Michael Greer, who is a lot more famous than I am. For those who missed the presentation but are nonetheless interested in the topic, here you go.

Planetary magick has long been a substantial component of the Western Mystery Tradition. While in modern Paganism elemental magick seems to predominate, a look through the grimoires of the Renaissance demonstrates that the seven ancient planets and seven days of the week were at that time a more common symbol set for evoking spirits and casting spells, while the elements were more often seen as part of the alchemical tradition. The planetary symbol set is thus highly suitable for advanced magical and mystical operations.

The next two sections of the presentation, Microcosm and Macrocosm and The Operant Field, summarize the information that I already have posted here and here. The presentation continues with a more detailed description of the changes that are made in the ritual forms when shifting from a microcosmic to a macrocosmic perspective.

Friday, March 25, 2011

No, Nobody Thinks You're Hogwarts

Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem, Massachusetts has been the bane of my Google News Alert for "witchcraft" for some time now. Every time an event happens at the school there it is among my listings that are supposed to contain articles about real Pagan or magical practices. Incidentally, one of my other pet peeves along those lines is Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," which shows up in the listings every time somebody reviews a new production of the play.

Now a member of Witchcraft Heights' School Committee wants to change the school's name to honor a former Salem City Councilor.

The School Committee is considering a proposal to rename the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School after former City Councilor Leonard O'Leary, although it is unclear if the request meets the district's policy on school naming.

School Committee member James Fleming raised the proposal at Monday's regular meeting, citing O'Leary's 24 years of service as councilor of Ward 4, the neighborhood where the Witchcraft Heights school is located.

"I think he should be honored," Fleming said in an interview. "[The school] is in his ward and it would be appropriate to name it after him."

Fleming, a former city councilor, said O'Leary was an advocate for the schools and a dedicated public servant. O'Leary died in 2007 at age 64.

So far, so normal. Schools are renamed after recently deceased public servants all the time, and I have to admit that it would be in my own personal interest to knock events from Salem's elementary school off my Google Alert.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 2011 Site Update: Now With Three Columns!

As you can see the layout of Augoeides has changed. I put some thought into changing over the theme to something completely new, but then came across a three-column version of Thisaway Rose which was what I was already using. It turned out to be pretty easy to make the same modifications to the new version as I had done with the old one, so that's what you're seeing now. I haven't completely closed the book on a full theme change, but this new version serves my purposes for now.

I've been wanting a three-columm layout for awhile, for three main reasons:

  1. As monitors have gotten bigger the old theme had started looking too narrow with its 760 pixel width. The new theme is 900 pixels wide, which still looks okay on a 1024x768 monitor but nonetheless uses more of the screen real estate. I'd like to go a little bit wider because the sidebars have shrunk a bit and feel a little cramped, but after some experimentation this morning it looks like that will require more work than I have time for at the moment.
  2. With the new gadgets and feeds that I've added recently the sidebar was getting ridiculously long, especially if you just followed a link to a single post. The extra column fixes that problem and lets me have two shorter sidebars instead of one long one.
  3. Finally, I wanted to be able to add a "Recent Comments" gadget since I've been noticing lately that I completely miss comments on older posts on a regular basis, but that would have made the sidebar even longer. It looks fine with the extra room.
I'm still kind of getting used to the three-column look. The old theme is essentially the standard one I started using when I first set the site up on blogger minus the bright pink background that I eventually changed over to dark blue. Hey, "Clear Pink Rose" is the King Scale color for Tiphareth - but even though I saw the pink that way most readers didn't and just found it annoying. It certainly is true that the blue is much gentler on the eye.

Enjoy the new site! I've made it a personal goal to continue blogging at the current rate in the months to come. This has already been my best month ever for pageviews and I plan on keeping the articles and commentary coming.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Metal Star: "Black Magic" Ruined My Life!

There's a famous old story about bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in order to become a great musician. But Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and Metallica fame recently told the Toronto Sun that as a teenager "he got into black magic and it ruined his life."

Megadeth rocker Dave Mustaine refuses to play heavy rock anthem The Conjuring live - because the track is laden with black magic imagery and occult spells.

The singer became fascinated in witchcraft as a teen and he's convinced spells he cast have come back to haunt him.

Now a strict Christian, he's keen to distance himself from his dark past - and refuses to play his song The Conjuring from 1986 album Peace Sells... but Who's Buying on tour - because the lyrics about black magic still affect him.

He tells Total Guitar magazine, "Performance wise, The Conjuring is one of the heaviest songs on the record, but unfortunately it's got black magic in it and I promised that I wouldn't play it any more, because there's a lot of instructions for hexes in that song.

"Although it seems kinda corny, anybody who's a Wiccan (witch) or a warlock or anything like that will know that all of that stuff is instrumental.

"When I got into black magic I put a couple of spells on people when I was a teenager and it haunted me forever, and I've had so much torment. People say, 'Goddamn, Dave never gets a break, he's had such a hard life,' and I just think, 'No, Dave didn't - he got into black magic and it ruined his life.'

"Fortunately for me, with all the work and the love of my friends, and not giving up with my guitar playing, I got over it. So I look back now and I think, 'Hmm, I don't wanna play The Conjuring'."

Obviously Mustaine can play or not play whatever songs he wants at his shows, but with comments like these part of me just wants to shake the guy and yell "Dude, you're an effing rock star!" That's not a life most people would consider "ruined."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fake Pastors "Deliver" Fake Witches?

A couple of years ago I used to cover more stories of African witchcraft persecution. Even though those stories don't show up here much anymore, the persecutions in that part of the world continue. Governments have attempted a number of policy solutions, but the problem is so widespread that laws regarding it are difficult to enforce.

In Nigeria, a religious organization has come up with a novel proposal - to address the issue of witchcraft by criminalizing fraudulent pastors who profit off of providing "deliverance" to children accused of witchcraft. I touched on this phenomenon in a short article from 2008, and in Nigeria this form of persecution has remained much more common than mob violence against accused witches. Apparently, it's also a whole lot more profitable.

The Akwa Ibom Branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has called for the establishment of a Bureau of Religious Affairs to checkmate fake pastors.

The Akwa Ibom CAN Chairman, Bishop Cletus Bassey, made the call on Wednesday in Uyo when he appeared before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Accusations and Child Abuse sitting in Uyo.

The CAN chairman was invited by the panel following a written memorandum submitted by the association to the panel.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spirits, Information, and Energy

The week before last I posted my take on the energy versus information debate running through the magical blogosphere at the time. It was a big hit - Jason liked it, Patrick liked it, and thanks to their recommendations it attracted more pageviews than anything I've posted here in a long time.

In that article I mentioned that I would be writing another that would explain my take on how spirits could fit into the combined information/energy model. So here it is.

Before I delve into that, though, I want to address a post that I came across recently but which was put up while the energy/information debate was going on. Frater Acher offered his take on the discussion at the beginning of the month, and put forth the suggestion that all of us engaged in the debate were missing the point.

Considering this long history of researching into the occult one can easily come to the conclusion that this must be the essence of Magick: to delve into the immaterial world and research the true connection of cause and effect. To become a scientist of the netherworld. To analyze, deconstruct and rationalize what seemed occult and arcane and mystic before. To shine a bright light into the darkness. To comprehend what was incomprehensible before.

Let me take a stand against that. Let me argue that nothing is further from the essence of magick as I see it. Nothing twists means and ends more.

Here is why: Magick is a mean to serve life, not the other way around. Magick is a mean to overcome crisis and return to happiness. Magick is not the dissection table of spirits but the table at which we commune. Faust might have been a successful geek, but he certainly wasn't a successful healer. Here are my two cents: The essence of a magick is the ability to lead a happy life.

This hearkens back to another debate that I've engaged in over and over again in the magical blogosphere, my staunch advocacy for the frequent use of practical magick. Because when all is said and done I agree with Frater Acher - the whole point of doing magick is to make you happier and make your life more successful. Why do magick at all if it makes your life miserable? It's a lot less work to just be miserable without bothering.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Wrong Kind of Christian

As I've mentioned numerous times I don't consider the religious beliefs that people decide to adopt to be any of my business. People choose their beliefs for many reasons, most of them subjective, and while I often find myself in disagreement with ideas propogated by both mainstream and alternative religions I also know that a lot of people feel the same way about Thelema. So in the end it evens out - we all have the right to think as we will.

It's when religious beliefs lead to dangerous and potentially destructive actions that I start having problems with them, whether it's an ignorant Pagan leader teaching nonsense about how magick works or a Christian who decides that in order to be virtuous they need to harrass anyone who practices a different form of spirituality than their own. Like this guy.

About 4 p.m. in front of The Sacred Grove, a metaphysical bookstore and pagan community center at 924 Soquel Ave., a black Isuzu Trooper screeched to a stop, book shop representatives said. A man got out and took a sign - which said "Witchcraft wares and magical supplies, potion brews and unique gifts" with a pentagram on the back, said Sacred Grove owner Michael Correll.

An employee noted the license plate number of the SUV, which was black and said "Jesus Saves" on one side and "confess and forgive" on another, police said. The vehicle's description was dispatched to authorities, and Capitola police spotted it on northbound 41st Avenue at Capitola Road a few minutes later.

"He passed a car on the right, almost got hit and took off," said Capitola Sgt. Darrell Harrison.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sweat Lodge Trial Underway

In October of 2009 I covered the case of James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru who taught a New Thought methodology similar to that popularized in Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. At a "spiritual warrior" retreat in Sedona, Arizona, several of his students were killed as the result of a sweat lodge ceremony gone terribly wrong. Ray is currently on trial in Arizona, charged with three counts of reckless manslaughter. If convicted he could face a long prison term.

They were seekers, not flakes. Doctors, engineers, salespeople, small-business owners -- professionals who paid $10,000 to break down personal barriers they believed kept them from achieving all they could.

But how hard participants in Ray's motivational seminars pushed themselves -- and how intensely Ray pushed his acolytes -- is one of the central questions being examined here in Yavapai County as his trial on manslaughter charges unfolds.

Prosecutors say three spiritual warriors died from the heat after 2½ hours in a sweat lodge on October 8, 2009. Nineteen others collapsed, vomited, had trouble breathing, hallucinated, foamed at the mouth or fell unconscious.

Some of the 55 people who followed Ray into the sweat lodge are now reliving the experience at his criminal trial at a remote desert courthouse far from the magic of Sedona. There are no New Age crystal shops or aura readers here. Roaring lions can be heard from a neighboring safari park.

Ray, a 53-year-old preacher's son, best-selling author and self-help coach, is accused of recklessly causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota; and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee. If convicted of three counts of reckless manslaughter, he could go to prison for more than 30 years.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tefillin Terrorists

TeffilinIt amazes me how ignorant some people are regarding the practices of religions other than their own. It probably shouldn't, since many people never study religions other than the one they were brought up in, but as I've been interested in the variety of religions and spiritual practices around the world for most of my life it strikes me as a particularly alien worldview. The lack of perspective that results from studying one's own religious tradition exclusively can lead to embarrassing misunderstandings in many different situations, almost to the same degree as not understanding your own tradition.

This lack of understanding likely contributed to a group of Orthodox Jews onboard an Air Alaska flight being misindentified as terrorists when they engaged in traditional Jewish prayers during the flight.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A "Revisionist" Manifesto

Since last November my friend Frater Barrabbas has been following an ongoing debate in the Pagan community over how closely modern Paganism resembles its historical ancestors. In a more recent article he discusses his interpretation of the three philosophical perspectives that seem to be fueling the debate.

These three different philosophical perspectives are based on three different approaches to engaging with a tradition. I call these three perspectives “traditional lore,” “reconstructionist” and the middle ground of “objectified traditional lore,” or “revisionism.” If you ever wanted to be entertained, just get together three individuals who are die-hard adherents of these three different perspectives, introduce them to a strategic point of disagreement, and then let the fur fly.

According to Barrabbas' definitions, Traditionalists are defined as members of a particular initiatic system or lineage who adhere to to the teachings of that tradition regardless of outside evidence to the contrary. Reconstructivists seek to restore the practices of a particular group at a particular period in time according to academic writing and research about the tradition. Finally, Revisionists validate and augment their lore by researching academic and scientific information. Like this. By those definitions I'm clearly a Revisionist and proud of it. In fact, I have no idea why anyone would want to be a Traditionalist or Reconstructionist if they're at all interested in doing magick.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Contingent Conjurations

Yesterday Rufus Opus put up an interesting article in which he describes lifting a particularly complex curse. Two different brujos had been hired to curse his client, and while they used different methods the two spells reinforced each other.

A slight tarnish covered the client's sphere, and the general sphere of her family. Then I looked deeper into the tarnish and its sources, and used some lunar tech to see through any illusions that might be covering the client. I saw a tribe of spirits had been assigned to monitor the client and her family. This tribe would monitor the plans and activities of the family members, and then sabotage whatever the client tried to do. The goal was simply to make the client's life miserable, and there were many agents sent against her, actively looking for ways to make her life hell.

Then I noticed that there was more to it. The client's sphere had been cursed, and bad luck flowed into her life. If bad luck were water, someone had increased the client's gravity and it all sort of flowed directly to her.

The curses were working together. The tribe of spirits used the incoming bad luck to sabotage the client's ambitions.

In the two methods employed I can see something of my own magical history. Back when I was starting out as a magician, I would simply curse the target's sphere and be done with it. As I became more experienced, though, I developed a method similar to the technique used to hide the spirits. Rather than binding the spirits to the target directly you instead bind them around the target and instruct them to mess with elements of the target's life to produce the desired effect. As RO notes it has the advantage of being hard to detect, especially with some illusions thrown in, and the target also will have trouble getting rid of it with daily magical practices. It's no surprise to me that brujos would have worked this out - they've been plying their trade professionally for a very long time.

I wanted to refer back to this in reference to another article that came through my news alerts, also yesterday. I was going to just post it as a weird news item, but after reading over RO's article it struck me that if this wasn't simply a case of hysteria it might represent a different application of the "tribe of spirits" technique used to curse his client.

Last year in November, the lady in question (name not mentioned) was traveling in a taxi when a neighbor accidentally left a phone behind. She immediately pocketed it and decided to make it a personal phone. After removing the simcard, the mobile phone was ready to be used. However, calamity befell her when demons started attacking her and almost running her mad.

Opaque objects started talking to her. Things like bags, chairs, and the like were talking to her almost running her mad. In despair, she took to a church, Prayer Palace in Kireka where she sought help. In shame, she lied to the pastor in charge saying she had just picked up the phone.

However, she later revealed the truth to the pastor who prayed for her and she left feeling better.

Hopefully she also returned the phone, which would probably stop the spell.

What I'm envisioning here is a spell similar to the "tribe of spirits" curse but bound to a particular object and set to go off if a certain condition is met. In this case, what I'm imagining is that the owner of the phone bound spirits to it and instructed them to go to work on the thief if the phone were stolen. Cell phones do get stolen a lot, so if I ever get one I'm considering casting something like this on it myself. It's very appealing to me as a software developer to be able to put spells into big if...then loops that run without my intervention.

The possible applications for contingent conjuration spells are wide and varied, and pretty much limited only by your imagination. Setting up a contingent condition is relatively simple - you conjure the spirit as you would normally, bind it to a person, place, or object, and then give it a slightly more complex charge that includes the condition. Something like "when this phone is stolen and activated, attack the thief or thieves until it is returned."

A classic version of this sort of spell that I've used for years is to charge spirits to neutralize any magical attack sent my way and then go after the caster, which might be why I've encountered so few magical attacks in the course of my work. Maybe they really are a lot more common than I realize and have been taken care of without my knowledge.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Interview with the Exorcist

At an Association for the Study of Esotericism conference I once attended a lecture discussing "Faux Catholicism" in an academic context. The term was used in the presentation to refer to the various images and ideas that have been associated with Roman Catholicism in the media but which have little to do with the real practices of the Church. One of the most enduring of these ideas is the Hollywood presentation of the Rite of Exorcism, which in the 1973 film The Exorcist shows Linda Blair levitating, exhibiting telekinesis, and twisting her head 360 degrees while under the control of a possessing demon. "Faux Catholicism" doesn't stop there either, including everything from the John Carpenter film Prince of Darkness in which a group of Catholic priests secretly tend to the essence of Satan trapped in a magical vessel to comic treatments like the telekinetic levitating nun in The Blues Brothers.

The real Rite of Exorcism is of course not much like it is usually portrayed in the movies, but it is nonethless an important part of the Roman Catholic spiritual system, one of the last remnants of a priestly magical tradition that also may have spawned traditional grimoires like the Heptameron in which the operator is practically assumed to be a Catholic priest or monk. It is still practiced to this day by a small group of specially trained priests that the Vatican is hoping to expand.

CNN has an interesting interview up with Father Gary Thomas conducted by Tom Foreman. Father Thomas is considered one of America's top exorcists and the inspiration behind Hollywood's latest take on exorcism, The Rite. I have yet to see the film, though given my love of just about anything paranormal or occult I probably will at some point. It stars Anthony Hopkins, and according to Thomas presents a relatively accurate depiction of exorcism compared with most other films of the genre.

“First of all,” he says, “it was very emotional for me. I found some of those scenes very riveting. I found some of them very profound. They’re very accurate. That’s what I’ve seen in real life.”

That’s saying something. "The Rite" is chock-full of heaving, cursing, ranting characters, who, according to the screenplay, are possessed by Satan, people who one moment seem fine and the next are raging against all that is holy.

And yet, Thomas says people who fear that very fate come to him constantly. “Well, often times they’ll begin the conversation with ‘Father, I need an exorcism.’ And my answer back to them is, ‘I don’t do them on demand.’”

That's a very good thing, considering that even the Church acknowledges that most of the time cases that look like "possession" are simply manifestations of untreated mental illness and every case is evaluated carefully by mental health professionals in an effort to rule these out before any exorcism can be performed. As is stated in the Church's general rules concerning exorcisms:

Especially, he should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought to ascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from some illness, especially one of a psychological nature. Signs of possession may be the following: ability to speak with some facility in a strange tongue or to understand it when spoken by another; the faculty of divulging future and hidden events; display of powers which are beyond the subject's age and natural condition; and various other indications which, when taken together as a whole, build up the evidence.

Unsurprisingly in some of his comments Thomas exhibits one of the most common blind spots of Christianity, which is the idea that the Christian Church offers some sort of special protection to its followers that other religions do not. While it's true that a Christian who completely accepts the teachings of the Church is not going to engage in any occult or magical practices that do carry some genuine risk of exposure to hostile spirits, it's also true that with an intercessionary priesthood many parishioners do little to no real spiritual practice of their own. So such individuals are going to be less likely to come to the attention of a hostile spirit, but at the same time should such a situation ever occur they will probably have no defense against it - aside from calling in an exorcist.

"A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous. People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …"

A vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head and I interrupt. “But a lot of people would tell you up front, ‘I’m just playing around.’”

“Right. Absolutely. And it’s not,” he says, noting that those who feel adrift from the church and from others of faith are more likely to be drawn in. “Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”

Simply put, Thomas believes just as surely as a person can summon God through prayer, through other rituals, the devil can be called, too.

As a magician I'm well aware that both angels and demons can be summoned using ritual methods, though I think that the existence of "the devil" as defined in Christianity as a single "big bad" remains an open question. Hostile spirits can take all sorts of forms, and in my experience there doesn't seem to be a single entity behind them all. That should not be taken to mean the Rite of Exorcism doesn't work, however - I was asked in the last exorcism thread if the methods used by Roman Catholics and ritual magicians would be similar, and they in fact are. Both work by summoning divine forces whose presence hostile spirits cannot tolerate. The main difference aside from specific technical details is that thanks to their univalent theology many Christians believe they have cornered the market on such forces, whereas ritual magicians work freely with forces outside the Christian pantheon whenever appropriate.

So how common is genuine possession, anyway? Jason Miller and I have argued in the past over the relative frequency of magical attacks, which includes attacks by spirits - I think they're rarer, he thinks they're more common. According to Thomas, out of the self-selected group of people seeking exorcisms 4 out of 5 have experienced some form of abuse rather than possession by hostile spirits. That would at the very least mean true possession is rare, though I freely admit that it's difficult to draw any conclusion from that statistic regarding magical attacks in general.

Thomas says fully 80% of the people he meets claiming demonic possession have actually suffered some kind of abuse. An exorcism, he says, is the last step in a long process.

“I have a particular situation now,” he says, “where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

If this "Satanic cult" was anything like most of the ones out there I'm guessing this person's problem is psychological. I know, that's condescending of me. Over the years I've been reminded by a number of commenters that there are serious occultists who consider themselves Satanists and do real magical work, but most of the time when a group calls itself "Satanic" it's made up of heavy-metal fans or goths who wear a lot of black and don't do much of anything besides try to shock their peers with how evil they are. I don't personally think that real demons pay such people much attention.

Even when an exorcism is prescribed, it often must be repeated. Judging from Thomas' comments, it takes something of a trained eye to decide whether it is even working.

I'd like to hear more about this, how Thomas can tell if an exorcism is working. I some ideas how I would do it, but I'm wondering how similar his methods are to the ones that I would try. Some of it is of course hard to explain, like feeling a change in the spiritual environment of a room, but I would expect behavioral clues as well given that there are particular behaviors that are thought to be signs of the possession itself. In the interview Thomas explains some of what he has seen in his many years performing exorcisms.

"Sometimes the person's head will begin to move in very rigid ways. Sometimes their eyes will roll. Sometimes there will be epileptic-like seizures," Thomas said. "Occasionally people will take on kind of a body language of a serpentine look, and they'll begin to stick their tongue out and use their tongue in ways that would look snake-like, and they'll coil up in a snake-like position."

“And these are things that you have seen in real life?” I ask.

"I have seen that," he said with a wry smile.

One of the biggest questions raised by skeptics is whether or not people engaging in these behaviors could simply be acting. It's a valid question, since odds are that anyone seeking out an exorcism is going to be steeped in a milieu that treats both Satan and demons as real and constant presences in the world. The social construction of a supposed constant demonic threat is more than enough to set up a psychological framework in which a person might act out in ways they consider appropriate to an exorcism. Based on his experiences, though, Thomas explains that he doubts this to be the case.

"I don't think they're acting out in a conscious sense,” he says, “because many times … they don't remember the experience itself.”

What’s more, he says, occasionally the person will do something that defies explanation.

"Sometimes the person will begin to speak in a language in which they have no competency in.”

Meaning, for example, someone who knows no German might start speaking precisely and accurately in that language. Thomas says he has witnessed that, too.

Unfortunately for Thomas, his first point that people don't remember the experience doesn't prove anything from a psychological perspective. Under hypnosis a person can behave in stereotypical ways - "act like a chicken" for example - and not remember a thing. Being able to speak a different language, though, is quite interesting. I'd like to see more detail on some of the cases involved in case, say, study of or exposure to the new language as a child might have been missed, but barring such an oversight sudden ability to speak a different language would be a pretty impressive piece of evidence if it could be well documented.

Thomas says there are about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States, and that’s not nearly enough. He’d like to see one exorcist in every parish. But until that day, he does not mind explaining over and over what exorcisms are really all about.

“It's a healing ministry. It's not hocus pocus. It's not smoke and mirrors. It's not magic. But I think if we don't respond to people who come in their very troubling moments, I think it diminishes us as a church."

As a matter of fact, I agree with most of that last statement. With one obvious exception, of course - the Rite of Exorcism is clearly a perfect example of Christian magick.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stupid is as Stupid Does

There's a famous photo from the original fundamentalist Christian revival in the 1920's of a preacher on stage with a huge banner behind him proclaiming "Read Your Bible!" I was unfortunately not able to find it searching online, but if only certain modern conservative Christians would follow that advice. It could save them from a lot of embarrassment.

For example, check out the strength of this guy's devotion. He's so committed to hating gay people that he's had Leviticus 18:22, the Old Testament verse prohibiting male homosexuality, tattooed onto his right arm. That's a whole lot of ink, so he must be really sincere about his beliefs, right?

There's just one little problem with that sort of display from the standpoint of Biblical literalism - Leviticus 19:28:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.

That's right. If this particular zealot had been willing to read even a few more pages of Leviticus he would have found that Old Testament Jewish law not only forbids homosexuality, it forbids tattoos as well.

Really, with the recursion there it's amazing he didn't implode on the spot.

H/T Religion Gone Crazy

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Glimpse into the Past

Many esoteric schools contend that a "golden age" of magick took place at some point in the distant past. From the legends of Atlantis to those of the Hollow Earth to those of the time before Noah's flood, the idea is the same. At some point in history a society existed in which magick was practiced more openly and effectively than it is today. Over the course of my life I've spent a lot of time researching various fringe theories including those of the "golden age," and I've been forced to conclude that there is no evidence out there suggesting that they are anything more than stories. Some are perhaps based on historical events, such as the tale of Atlantis possibly being derived from that of the volcanic eruption that nearly destroyed the island of Thera, but while the civilization of the Minoans was grand for its period it were nowhere near as advanced as some New Agers claim the Atlantean civilization must have been.

The real historical past is filled with accounts that describe the persecution of those suspected of practicing magick, much like what goes on around the world today in societies with widespread fear of paranormal practices. Magick has been deeply hated by religious authorities around the globe, and much of that hatred remains. Despite this uncomfortable fact, I think it's safe to say that if a "golden age" of magick has ever existed its time is now, at least in the developed world. Today we can post blog articles and correspond openly about our experiences before a potential audience of millions without fear of harm or reprisal by our neighbors. We can share information, models, and experiments in a way that would have seemed unimaginable to the secret societies of old that jealously guarded their esoteric teachings, and engage in peer review that helps move our discipline forward rather than allowing it to stagnate.

As a reminder of the troubled times hundreds of years ago when persecution awaited anyone accused of magical practices, the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care of Manchester has recently published online the diary of English Puritan Nehemiah Wallington, which includes firsthand accounts of witchcraft trials and executions from the middle of the seventeenth century.

The document reveals the details of a witchcraft trial held in Chelmsford in July 1645, when more than a hundred suspected witches were serving time in Essex and Suffolk according to his account.

"Divers (many) of them voluntarily and without any forcing or compulsion freely declare that they have made a covenant with the Devill," he wrote.

"Som Christians have been killed by their meanes," he added.

Of the 30 women on trial in Chelmsford, 14 were hanged.

Wallington also recounts the experiences of Rebecca West, a suspected witch who confessed to sleeping with the devil when she was tortured because "she found her selfe in such extremity of torture and amazement that she would not enure (endure) it againe for the world." Her confession spared her.

The diaries themselves can be viewed here. When I last checked the link the site was reporting problems with the image collection, perhaps because of heavy network traffic, but hopefully the diaries will be available again soon. They really are worth a read, if nothing else to remind us of how far we've come as a society since then and how lucky we all are to be practicing magick today rather than in 1645.

UPDATE (3/10/2011): I checked the site this morning and it looks like the problems are resolved and the diaries are back online. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Information and Energy

I stayed out of the first couple of rounds of the ongoing energy debate between Jason, Patrick, AIT, the Scribbler, and others but after reading over most of the discussion I think I finally have something worthwhile to add. This is in some ways an expansion of the comment I left on RO's blog the other day. So let's get to it.

The root of the debate seems to be that the strict version of Patrick's information/semiotic model disappears the experiences of "energy work" practitioners. Patrick has added comments suggesting that he believes anyone using "energy" in a magical context can only mean physical energy that would be measured in joules, but this strikes me as a bit of derail - I don't see anyone in the debate conceptualizing Chi or Prana that way, and the only example offered so far has been some ignorant New Age website talking about "crystal energy" and trying to relate it to the piezoelectric effect.

It seems to me that the best resolution to the debate would be to work out, in signal processing terms, what this "energy" could consist of in the context of the semiotic model. Until we do that there's a lot of apple-to-oranges comparisons being made. So here's my take - the signal sent by a magical ritual has three essential components: coherence, content, and intensity. The content of the signal consists of the information being transferred, the coherence refers to how clearly that information is communicated, and the intensity refers to the signal strength.

This diagram shows how a modulated signal is encoded into a carrier wave. In the case of magick, the resulting function is the full content of the information transmitted, the Modulated Result. Some have apparently asserted that the carrier wave is the "energy," but this is not really correct, as in the context of consciousness the carrier wave also consists of information. The fact is that we're not entirely sure what consciousness consists of, but we are fairly sure that it is not composed of any known form of physical energy. I've hypothesized that it may occupy the same "space" as quantum wavefunctions, given studies that show consciousness can affect quantum diodes, but that's pretty speculative at this point and pretty much impossible to measure reliably given our current level of technology.

In this simple example the regularity of the wave represents its coherence. According to the schema I'm proposing, coherence refers to the precision with which the content is transmitted. Coherence can be degraded by nonsensical or imprecise content, and also by the quality of the magical link to the spell's target. Patrick's model focuses on these aspects of magical operations - make your signal logical and precise, and clear the link to the target as thoroughly as possible. The working semiotic model hypothesis is that when magical operations fail one of these aspects is responsible for that failure and this is where the magician must concentrate his or her efforts to improve the spell.

However, from the standpoint of communications theory signal intensity also must be a factor. A radio signal contains the same information whether it is being broadcast from a 100 watt or 100,000 watt transmitter. It is my contention that the "energy" that energy work practitioners are referring to is directly related to the signal intensity, not the signal content. Enough research has been done to at least suggest a mechanism behind this as well - breathwork techniques like Qigong increase the oxygenation of the blood which allows for higher firing rates throughout the nervous system. This is what produces the tingling sense of "current" when you're doing it correctly, and since neural firing is electrochemical in nature "energy work" is in fact not a bad term for this sort of practice.

The relationship between neural firing rates and states of consciousness has also been measured to some degree. In Zen and the Brain neuroscientist James Austin cites a study in which advanced meditators' brainwaves were monitored as they reported reaching a state of samadhi. The state seemed to be strongly correlated to high-frequency gamma waves, which would be facilitated by the heightened level of oxygen in the blood produced by breathwork. As Patrick points out, consciousness is still essential to this process because without it there's nothing for the electrochemical energy to facilitate. But this energy also influences how consciousness processes information and by extension should also affect the intensity of a semiotic communication.

I see the semiotic model as useful because it focuses on the quality of the communication rather than merely its intensity. Many energy model practitioners in my experience tend to do the opposite, concentrating their efforts on increasing the intensity of their communications rather than tuning their signal quality. Energy practitioners who work exclusively on signal intensity could be seen as akin to the ignorant tourist who believes he or she can make a foreigner who speaks a different language understand English by shouting. Both aspects of the work are important, though, and it should go without saying that the most effective magician is going to be a practitioner who can do both.

Today's question for Patrick from Jason was what sort of "energy" is contained by a fluid condenser. His response is pretty clear, though it seems to me that he's imparting all sorts of beliefs to people who talk about "energy" that I don't personally share. He also has no problem talking about "power," which has a physics definition just like "energy" does and seems to me just as easy to misinterpret. In the combined schema I'm proposing, a fluid condenser is a substance linked to a field of consciousness that has been modified by a magical operation, in terms of both semiotic content and field intensity. Sending Chi into the condenser does not alter the information bound to the field, but increases its intensity. Communicating a magical charge to the field changes the information that the field contains to serve a particular magical goal.

The existence of spirits in this schema remains open to debate. There's no good empirical test to determine whether (A) consciousness requires some sort of matter or physical energy in order to remain coherent or (B) consciousness can be coherent and self-sustaining without a material body or anchor, because we still don't have a clear physical model of what consciousness is. My experiences suggest (B), in that my probability shifts are better if I augment my own abilities with that of a spirit, and furthermore many spirits seem to have their own agendas, but there's always the possibility that a belief in spirits could simply allow me to access a higher percentage of my personal magical power (note: I didn't say "energy"). I went into this a bit in my comment over at RO's, but it's really a separate subject that deserves its own article.

So under the semiotic model can we describe "energy work" as "work to increase signal intensity?" If so, that implies that the whole discussion is over nothing more than terminology. If, on the other hand, the semiotic model is set up in such a way that signal strength is irrelevant I'd like to see some further explanation as to how that makes sense in the context of consciousness when it is extremely important in communications theory overall.

My follow-up article on how spirits can be considered within this schema can be found here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Misuse of Magick

Those of you who have followed my blog for awhile know that most of the time when somebody claims this or that to be a misuse of magical powers I generally think they're full of it. I strongly believe that magick is a natural human ability, and that there's nothing wrong with using it for practical goals. The idea that using magick to achieve your goals somehow constitutes "cheating" is ridiculous, and I think it should generally be left up to individual magicians to decide which ethical system should guide their practices.

But then there's this.

A trio of Salem witches, offended by Hollywood hell-raiser Charlie Sheen’s proclamation that he is a “warlock,” are planning a spiritual housecleaning for the “Two and a Half Men” train wreck in the Witch City on Sunday.

“If he doesn’t get some spiritual help, he could end up dead,” said a witch who goes by the name of Lorelei. Just Lorelei. She’s hosting the Sheen-orcism at her witchcraft emporium Crow Haven Corner.

So what will you do Sunday, Loreliei?

“Sacrifice him,” deadpanned the witch, who was immediately chastised by her conjuring colleague Christian Day.

“We’re going to use high ritual and high magic to give him all the help he needs,” declared Christian.

I'm thinking that Loreliei's initial response there was the truth. Christian is just more media savvy and realized that it wouldn't play well in a news story. How do I know? Well, for one thing, "hexes" usually aren't considered "help" in modern parlance.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Two More EMF Experiments

The two most recent EMF evocation experiments were conducted on days when the baseline EMF was low, in both cases around .08. These were failures from the standpoint of the .4 threshold, but did show below-threshold EMF elevation in the presence of the spirit.

Trial 6

This trial was performed by 5 magicians, all experienced. Based on our prior research I made the prediction prior to trial #6 that the EMF would rise from the baseline .08, but not high enough to set off the alarm that kicks in at .4. Based on the previous observation that the presence of a spirit seems to add about .2 to the baseline EMF, I predicted for the first experiment that the peak EMF would be .28. Trial 5 from the same baseline peaked at .25, but at the time I considered that a statistical variation based on the presence of an experienced by unfamiliar person in the group.

This proved not to be the case. EMF did rise in conjunction with the presence of the spirit, but only to .22. Given the percentage difference between the predicted and observed values it struck me as unlikely that this was simply statistical variation, but I came away from the operation feeling like more trials would be necessary to establish a better working model to explain the strength of the EMF increase.

Trial 7

This trial was also performed by the same 5 magicians as trial 6. For this trial the temple baseline was the same as for trials 5 and 6. This allowed me to run another test from the same baseline level with the same group of people to see if I could get any more insight into developing a formula for deriving peak EMF from baseline EMF. This trial went much the same as trial 6, except this time the peak EMF only rose to .2 from .08. So the data points we now have for trials from this baseline are:

Trial 5: Baseline .08, Peak .25
Trial 6: Baseline .08, Peak .22
Trial 7: Baseline .08, Peak .20

This yields an average peak of .22 for this baseline, and since we had one more person for Trial 5 that may have been part of the reason the result of that trial was slightly higher. The other trials can be summarized as:

Trial 1: Baseline .20, Peak .41
Trial 2: Baseline .05, Peak .18
Trial 3: Baseline .12, Peak .41
Trial 4: Baseline .18, Peak .40

In all these cases the peak level occurred between the conjuration of the spirit and the license to depart, so the effect does seem to be linked to the spirit's presence rather than happening at random, but so far a completely predictable pattern has yet to emerge in terms of degree.

At .05 we got .18 for a multiplier of 3.6
At .08 we averaged .22 for a multiplier of 2.8
At around .17 we averaged .41 for a multiplier of 2.4

It seems like the multiplier increases as the baseline decreases, though the single .05 trial could turn out to be an outlier. What's clear is that the multiplier does seem to vary with the baseline, so it is not a straight additive effect as I previously hypothesized.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Beyond Bad Luck

Seeing as I haven't worked as a professional sorcerer, it never has occurred to me to think through what some of the hazards of the job might entail. This story from New York City highlights one of the potential problems with doing luck magick for clients - the people who need it badly enough to come to you are going to be profoundly unlucky. Reading it over I now have a much deeper understanding of why Jason Miller needs to be an expert at protection and reversal magick in order to keep his business going.

Candles ringing a bed in a voodoo ceremony that included sex ignited sheets and clothing strewn nearby and caused a fatal apartment fire last weekend, a city official said Friday.

The blaze started around 6:40 p.m. Sunday, when a woman visited a fourth-floor apartment in Brooklyn and paid a man $300 to perform a mystical ceremony that would bring her good luck, according to fire marshals with the Fire Department of New York.

The man was known in the neighborhood as a priest, and the two were either having sex, or had sex when the fire started from the candles on the floor, though it's not clear if it was part of the ceremony, said the official, who had direct knowledge of the case but spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

Instead of calling 911, the man first tried to put out the fire himself using water from a bathroom sink. As smoke began to gather, one of the other apartment occupants opened a window and propped the hall door open in an attempt to dissipate the plume. But instead, wind gusts shot the flames back inside, creating "a blowtorch effect" that pushed the fire into the hallway, the FDNY said.

The occupants fled as the flames spread. Several 911 calls were made, but it's not clear if the man also phoned. The blaze engulfed the fourth, fifth and sixth floors, causing the floor and part of the roof to collapse. It took nearly 200 firefighters about seven hours to bring the five-alarm blaze under control.

Such worst-case scenarios are why I keep a fire extiguisher in my temple, since it's always possible something as simple as a knocked-over candle can start a serious fire. But at the same time, you would think that anyone with ready access to water would be able to put out something as small as a candle flame starting to burn part of the floor - at least unless a whole lot of negative luck came into play. This toxic luck seems to have even extended to the emergency response, as dispatching errors are rare when the luck plane is behaving normally.

The FDNY is also reviewing a dispatching error that delayed getting water on the fire. One of the engines that had been sent to the fire was already at another emergency. The Uniformed Firefighters Association blamed the delay on recent firefighter staff reductions, though Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it had nothing to do with staffing.

As far as that good luck spell goes I'm guessing it didn't work. That means this particular individual is still out there somewhere and just as unlucky. So if you happen to be in New York City doing spellwork with candles keep the fire extinguisher close at hand.

You know, just in case.