Cursive as spiritual practice

Spencerian handwriting of the Victorian era
Spencerian script of the Victorian era

I think I mentioned previously that I’m going through a dry spell with regard to magic, basically a lack of sufficient energy. The energy I have at the moment has to be directed to maintaining my meatsuit and basic mental processes (sometimes just the very basic ones, alas). It’s frustrating, but we all cycle through stages like this.

Anyway, I’m a fan of old-timey things and skills, hence the archaeology degree. Well, not too long ago I heard that children aren’t being taught to read or write cursive anymore, since all they do is type or occasionally print. It creates difficulty when the kids at some point encounter documents handwritten by oldsters like me, but I guess that is becoming a more and more rare occurrence. So I thought, it’s understandable that cursive would fall by the wayside but it’s kind of a shame that we have lost the skill (and appreciation) of good penmanship.

Mind you I’ve never had good penmanship. I mean I’m perfectly content with my hybrid print-cursive, I can read it and I can write fast, and I don’t think it’s too ugly to look at. But it isn’t penmanship. I mean, think about that word: Penmanship implies that one could be a pen(wo)man, like someone who lives by the pen, an artisan.

One thing I have always admired in Japanese culture and which I wish we had more of in the US is the belief that any activity, no matter how humble and mundane, can be elevated to an artform through dedication, patience, sensitivity, and attentiveness. Even something as simple as making tea, or writing. You don’t have to be able to afford fancy tools or equipment, you don’t have to be young and full of vigor, you don’t have to be a man, or a woman–you just give it time, attention, and commitment. And the result is always beautiful. But even more important are the changes in one’s own heart, mind, and spirit that result from cultivating dedication, patience, sensitivity, and attentiveness.

Turning an everyday activity into an art also means spending time absorbed in something. You are simultaneously alone with your naked self (I don’t mean naked physically–unless you’re into that, in which case, you do you, honey), with nothing to distract you from your demons; and at the same time, your focus on the task at hand lets you get away from the hamster-in-a-wheel thoughts that go round and round in your head all day. It’s meditative.

So a couple weeks ago I got the sudden urge to re-learn how to write proper cursive. Just to make sure that, within me, it doesn’t become a lost art. It was a pretty weird impulse, in retrospect. There are so many other nearly-lost arts that I might have taken up instead, which I would have imagined would be more inspiring. But cursive penmanship is probably a good choice because it doesn’t require any money, facilities, or special equipment, and can be done pretty much anywhere one finds oneself.

Just presence, pen, and paper.

Then a couple of days ago, it came to me from the aether that this is to be my magical practice for the moment. While I don’t have the energy for big workings (or even minor ones), I can devote a little time every day to the cultivation of my soul through dedication, patience, sensitivity, and attentiveness. I’m not sure who or what put this thought in my head. It has the feeling of having come from “beyond”–much like this blog, in fact. And far be it from me to ignore the call.

UPDATE 26 Feb 2016: Today I found this article, explaining why writing by hand can help you learn and be more creative.

Revisiting appropriation and authenticity

Muscogee war bonnet

I keep thinking about these topics, which tells me that I’ve probably missed something important. This post is me thinking aloud, as it were. I think part of the reason why discussions of appropriation in magic leave me cold (including my own, if I’m honest) is that it makes us talk about magic as if it were like putting on and taking off a feather headdress. I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about the issue and figure out what is and isn’t honorable and ethical. But when the conclusion ultimately comes down to “Just don’t be a jerk,” I feel like I shouldn’t really have to say that. I’m pretty sure you already know, so if you are being a jerk, it’s probably because you sincerely made a mistake, or you don’t mind being a jerk. In which case, you know what to do. Good talk.

But magic isn’t just a hat. Indeed, the very fact that we can discuss it that way could be a disturbing sign of what Io calls “the market sweeping into the sacred.” While we don’t consciously regard it so, unconsciously, we speak about magical practices as if they were commodities. We talk often about whether this or that method gets results, and that’s an important rubric, but we don’t talk as much about dangers. I mean sure, we all know magic is dangerous, but it’s much rarer to find someone who will talk specifics. I’m arguably guilty of that too, since this isn’t a post about specific dangers of magic, but then I’m new to this path so I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about. No, my point here is that when it comes to magical tech, before we think about whether we are being offensive or even full-on racist assholes, we have to think about efficacy, the wishes and needs of Other parties involved, and safety.

This all dovetails into my argument that the vitality of a given magical tech or tradition might be more important than authenticity per se. To give a personal example, I don’t know much about African Diasporic religions or magic. I know more than the Hollywood version, but I’ve never lived in a part of the world where those traditions flourished, so I’ve had virtually no direct exposure. Also, I have no African ancestry myself (well, not within the last 25,000 years anyway), so there’s no family lore about it. So ATR traditions could not be more culturally foreign to me, and since I don’t feel motivated to go to a place with deep ATR roots and learn from the masters, I feel it would be a little approriatey of me to try and use their methods. But I do find these traditions interesting and appealing because they strike me as very vital indeed. It’s precisely because of this vitality that I am convinced that if I do become seriously interested in ATR, I should probably seek proper instruction. It is clear to me that there is a current there which couldn’t be captured in books, as well as fraught political relationships between me as a white American and peoples of African diasporic descent. Moreover, if I as a dilettante were to go around encouraging spirits to possess me, I might get some decidedly undesirable results. Josephine McCarthy’s advice (in a comment here) is sound: “Learn how to put yourself back together before you attempt to blow yourself up.”

Then too we have to consider the wishes of those on the Other side. I  am not going to turn away Hathor, Oshun, or Xi Wangmu just because we don’t happen to come from the same place. And I don’t assume that Nodens or Llyr want to work with me just because we may share some spiritual DNA. If some spirit is in need of aid and there’s no extant tradition (gods, can we have another word for this? I feel like I’m beating this one to death but I can’t find a good synonym) that deals with the issue, then I’ll have to seek elsewhere. And I will.

If our only worry with regard to the magic of other cultures is appropriation, then not only do we trivialize the magic and the entities involved, but we also hamper ourselves in ridiculous ways. If, say, becoming a houngan is off-limits to me because I’m not of African descent, then goetia and theurgy should also be off-limits because I’m not of Greek or Egyptian descent. There are lots of us in this world whose ancestors’ traditions were lost through colonization; are we just supposed to (once again) take our lumps and accept the diktat of cultural essentialism and imperialism? Hell no. I just have to quote again from Disrupt & Repair because Io says this elegantly and succinctly whereas my own attempts amount to only the most pitiful of verbal fumblings. He is referring specifically to Jake Stratton-Kent’s essay “What Is Goetia?” but I think what he says applies equally to our issues with authenticity and my own prioritization of vitality:

“The attitude/potency Stratton-Kent claims as ‘goetic’ [substitute here whatever attitude/potency you want] isn’t a special aspect of the Western magical tradition [substitute here whatever tradition you want]. It is more basic, resting in our humanity. When it manifests, it manifests in a magpie fashion, laying hold of whatever it can to anchor itself into the fabric of the visible world. Trying to establish a historical lineage for it misses the point that it has an allegiance to the atemporal. Throw away every book with the word ‘goetia’ [or whatever system] and the potency would manifest again and again in some other avenue….We don’t need a continuous tradition to approach that human birthright. What we need to appreciate is that the diversity of manifestations are an essential part of the process, not an accident to be erased by a return to a primal root. The diversity of negotiations being done by people all over the world, in all kinds of cultural context, forms the basis for understanding how profound the unity that joins them is.…A proper tradition needs more intimacy than that, it belongs closer to the level of kinship than to the level of the nation-state.”

(My emphasis.) Whichever end of the telescope you look through, whether you focus on diversity of practice/tradition or on unity, you inevitably come back to this: the diversity is a feature, not a bug. And the same could be said, I think, for whatever it is about human consciousness or neurology that inclines us to repeatedly interface with the numinous in certain ways.

Liar, Liar, pants on fire: more death

Paris Montmarte cemetery

Ok, so I lied. I said I was going to give you all a break on the ghoulish 8th-house, deathy stuff, but it turns out I’m not ready yet.

See, other people keep contributing awesome stuff that gives me all kinds of new nuances and angles to think about, and I can’t think without writing (can’t stop won’t stop). The synchronicity, or maybe more accurately the circularity, of blogging about these topics while others are also thinking and writing about it–see this post from Deb Castellano and this one from Stacey–both on the same day!…well, it feels really magical actually. And reassuring. All the feels!

I mean there are so many feels that it’s really hard to process. It’s like being underwater and not knowing which way is up anymore, your lungs ache, scarily empty, and your arms are tired and helpless, and you desperately need to swim for the surface but you have no idea where that is. All you can do is stop struggling and let yourself float, and hope you make it back to air before you run out, though you know you might not. You are basically asking a panicked animal to make a calm, conscious, counterintuitive decision.

But then at the same time, there’s this bizarre beauty to the experience. Or, I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sicko, but I think Stacey hit the nail bang on the head when she says:

“This also forces me to notice that I . . . kind of like? . . . being around people who are processing grief. I worry that this is horribly morbid, and what the hell is wrong with me, but this is the great mystery and I think there’s something holy about the grieving process.”

Yes. That.

The Japanese (of course it would be the Japanese) have a name for that sense of mystery, holiness, and melancholy-with-a-soupçon-of-ennui: mono no aware 物の哀れ. A non-literal translation that captures the feeling might go something like, “Alas! Everything ends…” In this point of view, that intensifies the beauty and preciousness of life. We will always be longing to plumb the mysteries of existence, and we’ll die before we get there…but the longing itself adds savor and depth.

I wish I could say I just sit here and bask in the poignant autumnal glory of it all, but the truth is this brings out the bitch in me. There’s nothing romantic about this, dear readers. Caring for someone who’s dying involves such an abundance of bodily fluids and excreta and whining and tantrums and pain…and that’s just me. (Buh dum CHING!) Seriously though, death is not for the squeamish, lemme tell ya. There’s a reason I never became a nurse. It’s called “emptying bedpans” and “cleaning up vomit.” Of all the seven deadly sins, the one I struggle with most is Pride. It’s not that I’m arrogant, but rather that I have an inflated sense of my own dignity and cleanliness. The number one thing this gig has taught me is humility, and it’s a lesson that I have to learn the hard way, over and over.

(For my fellow astro-nerds, transiting Saturn is going through my 8th house (death) until November of this year, squaring my natal Saturn in the 6th (caregiving), and has just moved off my progressed Moon (feelings, mothers) in the 8th–and this is a balsamic moon, the last phase of the lunation cycle and the one associated with death. Meanwhile, until Spring 2017 transiting Pluto (god of death) is running back and forth over my progressed Sun (identity) as it goes from direct, to retrograde, to direct again. Jupiter (more! more! more!) is also in my 6th house of caregiving and service right now. Now all that death would sound totally badass if I were a goth kid, but Saturn is slopping a big steaming glob of middle-aged responsibility, filial duty, and life-evaluation on my plate.)

There are a lot of weird effects of getting this up-close-and-personal with death. For the past couple months I’ve been unable to do any magic. I want to, I’m just unable to muster up the energy and focus. And my gut says I need to let it be for now. On the other hand, a few days ago I saw a ghost for the first time since I was like three years old. In the interim, I have heard ghosts stomping around, had them temporarily steal my keys, seen them in my mind’s eye during hynogogic states, and felt them clairsentiently (is that a word?), but I haven’t seen them with my actual physical eyes. A few days ago I was walking my dog and saw an elderly lady in a pink chenille bathrobe walking up, only to find when I looked straight on that she wasn’t there, at least, not in a corporeal sense. This is a huge deal for me since it could mean the restoration of an ability I lost long ago.

Is it weird that I’m talking so much about this? I don’t want to bore you, but I feel like death, and the deeply personal experiences surrounding death, need to be brought into the light. Maybe it’s a sort of calling for me right now, and it’s part of the Shiva current that keeps popping up. This shit isn’t glamorous or exciting–least of all as it manifests in my life–but it’s real. I very much look forward to Deb’s forthcoming Books of the Dead blog series, which she predicts will be “one part research, two parts personal sharing, one part witchcraft and one part folklore/mythos.  What will bind all of this chaos together will be actual Books of the Dead.” See, because that’s what we need more of. It’s a kind of psychopompery (another word I made up). (Maybe I should have called this blog Psychopomp and Circumstance lolz.) I know I can’t do it justice by myself, but now there are more voices in the chorus, and as Stacey says, it’s like death is in the air right now. I hope that makes for one hell of a Halloween.

So I retract my promise of no more death talk, though don’t worry, I am going to mix things up a bit.

A discourse on the 8th and 9th…houses, that is

I think about danger a lot lately. I suppose its only when you are stewarding a loved one into death, and you are getting lessons in destruction. Inevitably, I can’t help also thinking about how dumb and short-sighted most humans’ response to danger is. It has been said that we evolved to recognize and respond to immediate threats–the leopard slinking through the savanna grass–but not more abstract or distant threats. This, it is said, is why it’s so difficult to get people to take meaningful action to mitigate long-term, transpersonal threats like climate change or threats based far away like war or economic collapse in some country you don’t live in.

If that’s true, it bodes ill for us, insulated as we are in our air-conditioned civilization. Statistics show that the richer someone gets, the less empathetic they are, and that makes sense if you can only focus on your immediate environment. The neighborhoods you drive through with your doors locked would become increasingly irrelevant and ultimately unreal, and you would feel more worried about, say, a poorly performing stock than about the collapsing highways and bridges in your county, let alone whether someone else has enough to eat. Your behavior would be more motivated by the convenience of buying a bottle of water than by the fact that said bottle is being sold at a many-thousands-percent markup and was produced at the expense of the economy, environment, and health of literally your entire state. Wealth and centralization buffer one from natural selective pressures that less affluent people confront on a daily basis (e.g., famine, lack of access to health care) and consequently, the “threats” perceived by the wealthy person in their immediate environment are, not to put too fine a point on it, inane. Yet, unbeknownst to the comfortable, their (our) position is dangerously fragile.

Obviously some of us occupy, shall we say, a deeper, more diverse, and frankly frightening ecology. And what could be a better way of introducing the 8th and 9th houses of the zodiac?

Do you use astrology, lovely readers? I find I use it more as a map than for prediction or planetary magic. Experience tells me that it absolutely does work as a way of modeling the landscape (or really, the cosmiscape, to coin a word) of a person’s life and character. It’s not that I think the position of a particular planet or constellation determines a person’s fate–anyway, tropical astrology doesn’t use the actual positions of constellations anymore, it’s largely symbolic–but it can certainly tell you where to look out for high and low points, strengths and weaknesses. Beyond that, I have no explanation for why it works, except that the universe is magical and weird shit is weird.

A brief aside for those who may not have much familiarity with astrology, the houses are a 12-part division of the 360-degree circle of the zodiac. Each house represents a domain of activity or experience, and their condition by sign varies from person to person depending on your Ascendant. A lot of planets or an important transit in a given house puts emphasis on the matters it rules. I think a lot about the 7th, 8th, and 9th houses because they are the most populated in my birth chart, especially the latter two. And at the moment my progressed Moon is illuminating the 8th house, so I am seeing it very clearly…

The 8th

Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau
Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau

You will usually see the 8th house oversimplified as the house of sex and death, but that’s only half right. It is the house of Death. Specifically, it represents a descent into the underworld, the encounter with its denizens, and the total personal transformation that results. It is the journey of Orpheus and of Persephone. An initiation into the mysteries. It can be interesting to dip your toe into the 8th house life, but it’s not a fun place to spend a lot of time. There is infinite wisdom to be gained there, but it carries high risk and a heavy price.

8th house experiences can’t really be put into words, for they can only be understood through gnosis and direct encounter. You either survive, stronger but much altered, or die. Sometimes, this happens through sex, though not all sex. Some sex is very much a matter of the 5th house (fun), or the 6th (service), or even the 10th (career). It only becomes an 8th house affair when it unravels you. Pluto rules the 8th house, and Pluto will break you to remake you.

Sometimes the 8th house is also associated with shared resources, but it really involves inherited resources. The distinction there, I would argue, is that inheritance always entails the death of an ancestor, which in turn forces us to confront mortality.

Needless to say, the 8th house is a “place” that magicians and occultists find ourselves visiting a lot. But as with all the houses, and as you can see from the example of sex above, any activity or life event can manifest through any house; and equally, any house can manifest itself in any area of life.

For me, for example, some of my most powerful 8th house experiences came through studying anthropology. Anthropology is subject to all the limitations inherent in 21st-century academia, but more than any other discipline except philosophy, it has radical implications. Ninety-nine percent of people who take anthropology classes or even go on to careers in anthropology will never realize these implications, but in its best form, the encounter with alternate ontologies yanks the rug out from under yours. At first, you as a student are just collecting trivia about how other cultures do things (a 3rd house activity), but it becomes an 8th house experience when it totally blows your worldview and self-conception to smithereens and there’s nothing to replace it with. You then have to assemble a new version of reality from the ground up, trying to, in the words of Terence McKenna, “triangulate a sufficiently large number of data points in your sets of experience so that you can make a model of the world that is not imprisoning.” Until, in time, that model too is exploded.

Typical of the 8th house, this isn’t something you can plan for or arrange or will to happen. You don’t get it until you get it.

The 9th

The Hierophant, artist unknown
The Hierophant, artist unknown

Every zodiacal house bleeds into and informs its neighbors. So for example, the 7th house–the encounter with the Other–leads to the 8th house of initiation, which in turn is followed by the 9th–the hierophant. In the 9th house, the initiate, now transformed by direct experience of mortality and the chthonic forces of the underworld, returns to society and becomes a guide into the mysteries, one who brings others into the presence of the sacred.

If you look up a cookbook definition of the 9th house, you will see a rather disjointed collection of topics: foreign-language study, higher (post-secondary) learning, philosophy, law, religion, travel,  experiencing other cultures, and broadening one’s horizons. I used to struggle to tease out the common theme. The fact that Jupiter rules the 9th did nothing to clarify things for me. And then finally it clicked–the 9th house doesn’t make sense except in the context of what was learned in the 8th. The common theme of the 9th–the sacred–has been lost in most modern astrological interpretation. The “higher learning” of the 9th house is not post-secondary education, but gnosis; philosophy and law are not academic disciplines, but the theory and practice of ethics, respectively; travel, foreign languages, meeting other cultures, and the broadening of one’s horizons are, metaphorically, the skills acquired by the sage. And religion, well, that’s self-explanatory.

The negative qualities of the Hierophant of the tarot (Card V of the Major Arcana) also apply to the 9th house: dogmatic, orthodox, pompous, holier-than-thou. Now the associations with Jupiter, king of the gods, should be clear! These are the pitfalls that surround every organized form of religion and magic, and the inevitable signal loss that comes with trying to put into words and share the ineffable mysteries of the 8th house. Yet a well-balanced 9th house embodies a truly generous and idealistic calling to bring justice, peace, dignity, and awe into the lives of all. In this consideration of the role of mystics in social revolution, the characterization of “social mysticism” applies equally well to the 9th house:

“Because it imbues human relationships with the power of the divine, social mysticism generates great potential for change and creativity. It supports the formation of new perspectives, builds communities that embody them, and nurtures a particular style of interaction that’s capable of doing something quite profound: redistributing emotional energy from those who have more resources to those who have less. In these ways, mysticism can play a crucial role in creating critiques and sustaining active resistance to the prevailing social order.”

It is through the 9th house that the wisdom of the 8th is put into action and integrated into the community and into an individual’s own daily life. It is impossible to live in the 8th house–it would grind us to dust or  reduce us to gibbering madness, for one thing, but more importantly, one cannot stay forever in any one zodiacal house. The 8th house experiences have to be integrated into the individual psyche and find a way to survive re-entry into the social atmosphere. That is the work of the 9th.

8 + 9, the ambidextrous path

Understanding the natures of the 8th and 9th houses, I think, puts the lie to the false dichotomy of left- and right-hand paths. Superficially, the 8th house is decidedly left-hand, while the 9th is right-hand, but neither house exists in isolation. A given individual may feel more comfortable with the experiences of one or the other house, may find the experiences come more naturally or easily, but magic never lets us stay where we’re comfortable. Besides, if comfort is the goal, why bother with magic at all? You are barking up the wrong world-tree if you came here for an easy time. That way lies fragility.

Not only are the houses not isolated from one another, they are in fact inextricably intertwined, each flowing from the previous and into the next, each drawing meaning, purpose, and clarity from its neighbors. Similarly, if you abandon the dogma about path-handedness, you see right in the left and left in the right almost everywhere you look. Indeed it was arbitrary of me to section off the 8th and the 9th, but I can’t do the whole zodiac in one post. Hopefully in future there will be time to consider the other houses.

In search of authenticity

What is “authentic” in magic? In religion? Should we seek it, and if so, where can it be found?

This post was inspired by a conversation in the comments on my karma post. The topic turned to authenticity, and I was rightly challenged to define what I mean by that. So I thought about it for a while and this is what I came up with–other perspectives are welcome. I tried to keep it succinct, but failed.

Totes magical.
They are, like, totes magical.

First let me state that I am just as disgusted by hipsters buying Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles and mustache wax at Urban Outfitters, or setting up booths to read tarot badly, or selling spells on Etsy to attract a succubus who will think you are soooo hot, as the rest of you are. But then, I’m disgusted by hipsters generally because, in my experience, to be a hipster is to be a hyper-materialist. It is a subculture based on simulacra, on authenticity-posturing. For example, during the decade I lived in a large American city famously crawling with hipsters, I observed that the same people who would only drink crap beer at biker bars because anything else was “bourgeois,” who would pride themselves on riding a fixie or taking the bus to show how eco-friendly they were, but would fly to the other end of the country (America is a big country btw) just to get a tattoo. The very fact that so much energy is expended on aping blue collar Americana (e.g., western or denim shirts, hand-knitted scarves, caps sporting tractor or trucking company names) demonstrates how acutely status-conscious hipsters are. What is more bourgeois than slumming? In my book, that is called hypocrisy. It is doubly annoying and depressing now that, for the past three or four years, they have turned their predatory attentions toward the occult and its paraphernalia.

But I’m betting I don’t need to give you more reasons to be annoyed by hipsters. (And don’t worry, they’ll get bored with it soon.) Sadly, as easy as it is to point the finger at them, they are a natural outgrowth of the current values and priorities of the (post-)modern Western monoculture to which so many of us are unwilling, but nevertheless habitual, contributors. Or as Gordon so astutely put it, “Blaming hipsters for ‘special snowflake’ syndrome is egregiously unfair as we are the snowclouds.” Hipsters are irritating because they are so utterly unconcerned with authenticity or meaning, except when they are working hard to create a pretense of it. They somehow manage to appropriate from within their own cultures.

But why does it make us so uncomfortable? Why do we care about authenticity, and in particular, why do we feel the need to police others’ authenticity, or lack thereof?

To begin with a basic definition, the dictionary gives one meaning as “having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship” (in other words, something is what it purports to be) while another is “conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, and belief” (in other words, accurate and actual). So basically something that is honest about itself, and which has a known provenance.

Any particular magical technique or tradition can meet one of these criteria without meeting both. For example, a given claim could be faithful to its origin either in history or in UPG, yet never amount to more than religious dogma, abstract symbolism, or just plain BS. (Spirits say the darndest things.) Conversely, a claim could be erroneously represented as, say, “druidic” or “shamanic” yet still produce the desired and expected results. (The Virgin of Guadalupe might answer your prayer, even if you bought your prayer candle at Urban Outfitters.)

I propose:

  1. Hipsters make us feel yucky because they are distorting mirrors. They exaggerate practices that many of us are implicated in, and by doing so, bring them uncomfortably into our awareness. At the same time, they represent values of a monoculture we desperately want to escape and resist. So in a sense, the quest for authenticity is a quest to be liberated as victims/perpetrators of the monoculture.
  2. Authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable, and perhaps of dubious utility anyway.
  3. Authenticity-as-functionality is useful though subjective.
  4. Integrity is the promise of authenticity, and dogma is the pitfall. We have to shoot for the former while escaping the latter. I think we might need more specific vocabulary for this issue.

Allow me to elaborate…

Authenticity as liberation

Don’t you hate it when your nips get chafed by your appropriated Native American garb?

First and foremost we need to question why we even seek after authenticity. I am certain there are many factors intertwined in this subject and I doubt I could come up with a comprehensive list. I’d rather focus on one: I suspect that worries about legitimacy are a smokescreen obscuring a deeper need to both escape the world of simulacra and escape our own complicity in it. That is to say, the need to escape–or more proactively, to reject–the simulacra of the monoculture is very real and very worthwhile. It is arguably the first, though ongoing, task of the magician. But when the focus comes off the goal of liberation and shifts to controlling the terms of engagement, “authenticity” has turned into “policing.” For the apprentice wizard, it’s like just as you are breathing a sigh of relief at having finally broken with the monoculture, having passed the first gate, Fear of Attack, and the second gate, Fear of Being Silly, you hit the third gate, Judgy Fellow Magicians.

I know that many if not most people within the magical community oppose the monoculture. How could we not, when it opposes us? But so often we find ourselves caught in a bind, forced to choose the lesser of evils, operating half-blind without enough information (and that’s even when we use divination). Maybe I’m generalizing too much from my own experience but I think the very first obstacle we come to as baby wizards is our fear of going against the monoculture. Anyone who doesn’t experience at least a frisson of terror at the potential repercussions of disengaging from The System isn’t using their imagination. Disengaging from the monoculture entails very real costs, and it doesn’t have to be something as grotesque as burning at the stake, beaten to death with sticks, tortured to death, or being dismembered with machetes so your body parts can be sold on the black market. The subtler punishments can be a death of a thousand cuts.

Not surprisingly, the people talking a good game about sticking it to The Man greatly outnumber those who actually try to do so. I’ve always kind of gotten a kick out of hearing Western cultures described as individualistic, because I see plenty of demand for conformity in the US. Granted, our laws do provide for a certain degree of personal freedom relative to other places in the world–though you never know when those freedoms are going to be arbitrarily violated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies, especially if you aren’t white or rich–but this is not some El Dorado of unfettered personal expression. Here as in other parts of the world subject to the monoculture, there are people at every level and in every corner of society waiting to judge and condemn your every failure to live and endorse the capitalist dream.

No matter what the topic under discussion, those who set themselves up as gatekeepers of correctness are the ones who are feeling the most threatened by change and debate. Gatekeeping is self-aggrandizement, and a distraction from the hard work and loneliness of introspection. I see this little drama absurdly reenacted all the time here in the US. Certain jerks think that the freedom of religion inscribed in our Constitution means they should get to persecute anyone who goes against the jerk’s religious beliefs. In fact it merely means that, e.g., if an individual’s religion says they can’t marry a person of the same sex, then the individual can’t be forced to do so. It doesn’t give that individual the right to circumscribe the rights of others, on religious or any other grounds. Unfortunately, as currently interpreted in America, freedom means “I get to do whatever I want and everyone else can get fucked.”I guess that does look individualistic, but I think it’s more defensive. In fact a self-defensive attitude is so pervasive that anything that contradicts some interest group’s values is declared a “war” on those values. If certain conservative news networks are to be believed, the mere existence of people who aren’t Christian is a “war on Christianity.” I mention this as an example of the desire to gatekeep taken to extremes.

But I can’t help but think there’s an element of “you damn kids!” in our need for authenticity too. I remember reading a blog post once–sadly I can’t remember where, but it had nothing to do with magic, just life in general–where the author was talking about how hard it can be to make friends as an adult, especially in middle age. Sometimes one ends up with seemingly incongruous friends, with whom one has little in common, simply because hey, they showed up. Back in the late 20th century, Jason Miller assures me, it was similar with magic:

“We didn’t have social media then either. No Facebook. No Yahoogroups. No MySpace. Not even fucking Friendster. You couldn’t find the other people in the world with the exact same myopic opinions and interests that you have. No groups for just for Celtic Taoists, Thelemic Palo Mayomberas, or people following the Key Of Solomon to the letter. You just had to form a study group, cabal, or coven and put up with whoever showed up. You had Setians participating in Wiccan Circles, Tantrikas going to OTO meetings, Chaos Magicians showing up for Modern Magic practice sessions because that is all there was in your area, and at least it was something.

I wasn’t actively involved in the occult back then, but I was a young adult and I remember those heady days, getting dizzy from photocopier toner fumes, desperately hoping I had enough coins to finish the job, so psyched because I found some book in the library with one chapter on whatever I was interested in. Pre-internet and social media, college was the time when you got to surround and insulate yourself with others who shared your beliefs and opinions–once you graduated, you had to grow up and be nice to humanity’s irritating diversity. Nowadays, a whole slew of cultural factors, social media among them, have led to the ridiculous expectation that we should be surrounded by others just like us, and the perception that those who don’t think just like us are a threat. It’s as if the filtering algorithms Facebook and Google use to decide what should be important to you have bled out into the culture at large, and it may benefit someone, but it ain’t us. Gordon again, much more succinctly than my rambling diatribe:

“When did we all become such massive dicks? The instant we find something that isn’t a 100% confirmation of our existing worldview, we all take to facestalk and fizz with impotent consternation….If you have enough time to only consume stuff you agree with and then even more time to overreact to anything that slightly deviates from it then, humbly, you need to look at how you are spending your incarnation.”

You are in charge of you; why worry so much about what others are doing? It’s their business and moreover it’s out of your control. If you think a given practice is inauthentic, don’t use it and don’t teach it. Simple as that. Yes, poseurs–who by definition must call attention to themselves–will make the rest of us look bad in the eyes of the monoculture. Since when do we need the monoculture’s approval? Yes, they will do things we regard as dorky, lame, tacky, and just plain wrong. Ironically, they will even try to set themselves up as the arbiters of authenticity (they were into magic before it was cool, you see). All very annoying, most of all when our own behavior starts to converge on theirs, hmm? It’s not that I’m above tsk-tsking at others (you read the first part of this post, right?), but it’s precisely because it’s so hard for me to stay focused on my own path that I feel it’s necessary to do.

Magic is “occult” for a reason. Actually more than one reason: (1) to protect its users from negative social repercussions, (2) to allow sufficient solitude and freedom from distraction for practice and introspection, and (3) due to signal loss, the inevitable impossibility of putting any of this into words, and the fact that some don’t have ears to hear. I want to be clear that when I criticize the gatekeeping impulse, I am not talking about protective secrecy. To know, to will, to dare, to keep secret does not require the addition of “to demand the right to determine the terms of engagement and censure those who don’t comply.”

Authenticity as historicity

If you suspect there is a kind of crust of fossilized ideas and practices that has adhered to the occult–and I’m sure there is, because humans–you might figure that a worthwhile project is to cut through it to get to the juicy meat. From what I have seen, that crust is composed of a mix of things that once worked but whose purposes have long been forgotten; formal gestures that never worked but maybe made sense within a long-gone social, philosophical, and/or religious context; zany pronouncements from the less…er, enlightened?…denizens of the spirit world; blurry transmissions from the beyond and the inevitable losses-in-translation; dogma; and insertions by self-aggrandizers (both embodied and not).

How do you remove that cortex of bunk? Some try to go back to a time when the tradition was not yet corrupted by these accretions. I don’t really think that’s possible, for reasons I explain below, and moreover I think some of that junk has always been in magic–again, because humans. Another method is to largely ignore what anyone else has ever said and do it the hard way, figuring that the proof of your success or failure will be in the pudding, which I get to in the next section.

As has probably become painfully obvious to you, lovely readers, I think history and archaeology are extremely interesting, academically. If I had it in me to do a second Ph.D., it would probably be on the archaeology of the WMT (or rather, some tiny picayune aspect thereof, because such is the nature of dissertations). But from an experiential and practical point of view, what does historicity really matter? I mean, there is no reason to throw away the hard-earned knowledge of our forebears; but on the other hand, there’s no reason not to put it to the test, either.

We can’t ever really walk in our ancestors’ shoes because our consciousness and our cognition are different. For the purpose of my argument, let me define a culture as a set of more-or-less formalized mental models of the universe, plus behavioral guidelines for negotiating that universe, which together make up a worldview. It forms part of the context for a developing mind and brain, along with things like the mother’s health during pregnancy, nutrition, genetics, traumatic injury, inner dimensions of reality, and so on. Our brains are plastic, forming and eliminating neural pathways according to the stimuli presented to them and the uses they are put to, but the range of potential stimuli and uses is limited by prevailing mental models of what is “real” and “possible” (i.e., the culture). Although the mind is not the same thing as the brain, the mind does use the brain to interface (somewhat inadequately) with our material realities.

As for our own prevailing system of mental models, we latched onto reductionist materialism as our guiding philosophical paradigm, only to realize about 200 years down the line that it feels hollow and yucky and we were tricked into conspiring in our own enslavement and destruction. In the meantime, we let all the elders die without bothering to record their wisdom, and now that old-timey skills suddenly look a lot like the sort of thing one needs to know for survival when the proverbial shit hits the fan, we are rightly sad and scared. We want to jettison the façade and find something that actually works and doesn’t make us want to slit our wrists. There are a few left who can teach us how to make stone tools, thatch a cottage, or make a dugout canoe, but not as many who can teach us how to eat sin, or what charms to sing over a foundered horse.

So one way to look at magic is as forgotten knowledge that can be partially recovered through surviving texts and oral tradition, and partially through experimentation and personal gnosis. But as the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” They don’t do things different, they see and think differently too. I suspect John Michael Greer is on the right track when he proposes that it isn’t simply that we have forgotten certain skills; the bigger problem is that we have so narrowed our mental models that we have dulled our brain-tools and rendered them useless in non-human-created environments. And so, he argues, most of us are literally unable to think our way out of the box we made for ourselves, and keep doubling down on stupid decisions like, say, fracking:

“…civilizations by and large don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall; instead, they take that route with yells of triumph, convinced that the road to ruin will infallibly lead them to heaven on earth, and attempts to turn them aside from that trajectory typically get reactions ranging from blank incomprehension to furious anger. It’s not just the elites who fall into this sort of self-destructive groupthink, either: it’s not hard to find, in a falling civilization, people who claim to disagree with the ideology that’s driving the collapse, but people who take their disagreement to the point of making choices that differ from those of their more orthodox neighbors are much scarcer.”

Outside of our created buffer zone, when our ideas about how the world works are wrong, we tend to get dead, and cultural models get updated accordingly. Within the buffer zone, we are protected enough to generally stay alive and keep breeding. So we don’t learn when our mental models are a poor fit with reality because reality as we have come to know it is our mental models. Thanks to fossil fuels, modern Western society more completely shelters its adherents than any civilization before (think air conditioning), so the implication of Greer’s speculation is that we have not merely forgotten some stuff, but those of us alive today are now too stupid to learn it again. Now we must wait until natural selection has a chance to impose some negative feedback on our descendants’ worldviews.

Summerisle wicker man

My point with all this is that you can build a wicker man, but because the social, cultural, cognitive, and religious context for druidic human sacrifice is gone (outside of Summerisle anyway), you would arguably just be murdering people. This is the sense in which I mean that authenticity-as-historicity is unattainable. If the question is merely one of historical interest, then obviously accuracy is desirable–and yes, there are plenty of people out there making factually erroneous claims about the historicity of their magic–but that only bothers me (admittedly, it bothers me a lot) in an academic sense.

I think if we cannot fully replicate or reconstruct the past, we are released from the obligation to try. The primacy of ancient wisdom is just one among many metaphysical assertions that demand to be questioned if we are not just to accept them as dogma. Why should we think that the Western Magical Tradition is univalent, or that it stopped evolving?

Authenticity as functionality

This picture captions itself, really.
This picture captions itself, really.

When I was a kid my aunt used to laugh at me and say that I always had to do everything the hard way. I would never take advice. So if you are one of those people who must reinvent the wheel, I feel you. Mind you, I messed up a lot because of my unwillingness to listen to my elders.

Does a given method work without too many unintended undesirable effects? That’s always the most fundamental question in magical practice. I could tell…well, anyone…that a “haunted unicorn pegasus telepathy intuition spirit talisman” is probably not going to achieve anything but the emptying of their wallet, but I guess it depends on what effect the benighted purchaser is going for. Here again, those mental/cultural models are in play: If the ends were all the same, we could compare which means work best; but the ends are not all the same.

Look, I admit that if I were part of a lodge or coven, and the other members were hipsters doing Fauxhemian tarot readings, or if they were New Agers seeking crystal children to help them bring about the Ascension, I would be super annoyed and leave because I would not be getting what I’m looking for. I really hope I’m not coming off here as though I am above being judgy, because heck, judging is one of my hobbies. (I’m sure that will become apparent in due time if it hasn’t already.) And I don’t mean this as some can’t-we-all-just-get-along tolerance talk. There is also the question of appropriation, which I address separately. Relativism has its benefits, but the magical path is lonely enough without having to do everything by yourself from scratch. It’s kind of crazy not to take advantage of the human ability to learn vicariously. At some point, you have to take someone else’s method or metaphysical proposition and try it on for size. And it should not be dismissed simply because it makes you uncomfortable. I would have gotten exactly nowhere–and granted, I’m barely even onto the path at this point, but I wouldn’t be on it at all–if I hadn’t ultimately swallowed my pride and decided to work through my uneasiness.

On the other hand, UPG can result in some frankly bizarre stuff. I used to contribute to an internet forum that was mostly made up of New Agers. There were a couple other people more of my own metaphysical stripe, enough to keep me coming back and thinking I had something of value to contribute. But I finally gave up after I encountered (1) a woman who claimed to channel angels. One type of angels were the “Chantilly angels,” who told her that God’s ideal society was 1950s America, and these angels were here to return us to that golden age. (2) Someone who claimed to channel an extremely racist Archangel Michael. (3) A dude who thought the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization had flying cars and nuclear weapons (I have been hearing this lately from some Hindu Vedic fundamentalists; not sure if he was one). And (4) another person who claimed to have channeled an Atlantean who said that if you suck on seeds before planting them, the plants will absorb your DNA and then produce exactly the nutrients you personally need. (I am not making this up.) I also saw (virtually speaking) some people who were obviously being munched on by noncorporeal parasites, and were being told whatever they needed to hear to keep them compliant. In short there is a lot of crazy out there, and there are apparently plenty of individuals (embodied and not) who really, really want to share it with you. (I am a year late but I just found out about this book on the subject of channeled weirdness via Disrupt & Repair and cannot wait to read it.)

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of gnosis. I avidly seek it myself because there seem to be certain categories of universal esoteric knowledge that can only be obtained through gnosis. I just don’t think I can use my subjective experiences as a metric of authenticity that can be applied to everyone else. In this sense, we are like the blind men and the elephant. We grasp the truth, but never the whole truth.

Parting thoughts

I’m starting to wonder if, rather than authenticity, what we should seek in a spiritual and/or magical method is vitality. By that I mean does the practice or tradition not only function (accomplish one’s goals) but does it put one in touch with the numinous? Does it deepen and broaden our experience of life? Does it facilitate communion with other living beings, embodied and otherwise? Does it help liberate us? In my view, magical natural selection will ensure that, over time, what survives is what is vital and powerful. If you take a snapshot of any given slice of time, of course, there will still be a few fossils that have outlived their usefulness. By all means, abandon–or better yet, compost or combust–that shit. But help the strong survive. Our choices are part of the forces that will select the fittest, most adaptable magics. But, just as natural selection doesn’t work on individual organisms but on variants of genes (as one of my professors used to say, “fitness is a property of alleles!”), so we must expect that it’s not magical systems that will survive but smaller elements such as techniques and myths. I think that is reflected in the magic and mythology of street kids. The life-and-death selective pressures those kids face are far more intense than what most of us encounter, so you can be sure that whatever magics survive in their world have been honed to a knife-edge. They have to work. We may be perturbed by the remixed versions of magic that are espoused by the next two or three generations, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that Hollywood and hipsters will eventually get bored and leave us alone.

The Paphos amulet: a reinterpretation

The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.
The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.

Have you all seen this amulet that made the news around the beginning of this year? There are many such “magical gems” from Greek Egypt, but this one is interesting because it was discovered at the site of the ancient agora in Paphos, Cyprus. The immediate context was dated to the late Roman (Byzantine) period, specifically the 5th-6th century AD. That means that the milieu was Christian, but the iconography on the amulet is clearly not.

Now, my opinions on this topic may not be taken seriously by anyone since I am not an Egyptologist nor a Classicist. But then, few archaeologists are experts in the Western Magical Tradition (not that I’m claiming to be one myself), and I suspect that a lack of familiarity with the WMT has hampered the archaeologists’ interpretations. Which is kind of ironic, because they explain all the amulet’s deviations from orthodox Egyptian style by concluding it was the the artist who didn’t know the subject matter well. I do think the archaeologists got a lot right, but unlike them I think that the unusual aspects of the amulet may represent a blending of mythic elements, as I will explain. And, since I have no professional reputation to ruin, I am free to speculate about what it all means.

In researching this topic, I discovered The Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database, which is awesome. Thanks to this resource, I was able to compare the Paphos amulet to other magical gems and find some actual evidence rather than just bloviating about it. I assume the database is not a comprehensive collection of all magical amulets, but it is a large sample.

But first, here is how the Paphos amulet is described in the official scholarly publication on the artifact, “Magical Amulet from Paphos with the ιαεω- Palindrome” (Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization Vol. 17, 2013), by Joachim Sliwa. You can download the article for free at this link, but I think you have to register with academia.edu to do so.

Going clockwise from top, the seated figure at the top is Harpocrates, seemingly wrapped in mummy bandages, seated on a stool and holding a nekhekh flail. To his right is a star and below it, a snake and a mummified cynocephalus. At the bottom is a mummy, identified as Osiris, in a papyrus boat sailing toward the right (as indicated by the direction of the oars at the stern), and below that a crocodile. Above and to the left is a rooster, and above that, a moon.

Sliwa identifies a couple of ways in which the composition differs from standard Egyptian iconography: (1) Harpocrates usually kneels on a lotus, rather than sitting on a stool with his feet down; he is never depicted as a mummy. (2) He is often accompanied by falcons, but it appears that here the falcon has been replaced by a rooster “with a rayed crown upon its head that was an aspect of Chnoubis or cock-headed Anguipedes…” (3) Cynocephali are normally shown with their hands raised in prayer or adoration toward Harpocrates, not with one hand to the mouth, which is Harpocrates’ customary gesture. These “mistakes” are attributed to the artist not understanding the source material. (4) Harpocrates is often shown in a boat surrounded by animals in triplicate–these include birds (usually falcons, sometimes ibises or herons), crocodiles, and snakes. Three of each animal was meant to signify all members of that animal type. The snakes and crocodiles represented vanquished powers of night. Below is a more typical depiction of Harpocrates:

Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: "A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas."
Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: “A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas.”

“Another issue is the considerable artistic ineptness….However, the fundamental context of solar ideas has not been lost. … Harpocrates…traverses the celestial ocean in a boat. The half-moon on the left symbolizes Thoth while the star on the right symbolizes Sirius. … [The] crocodile is…a symbol of chaos, the chthonic world and its powers, the West, the Night and the element of water. The snake depicted above, to the right of Harpocrates, also falls into this [evil] category.”

On the back of the amulet is a so-called ιαεω- palindrome (ιαεω is a variant of IAO) with two mistakes (ρ where it should have ν). The text has been translated as follows:

“Yahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”


I have a somewhat different take on the scene: (1) I think that the heterodox depiction that Sliwa attributes to ineptness may instead be an adaptation to a different cultural context. (2) Related to that, I think Harpocrates is holding a torch here instead of the nekhekh flail. (3) Also related to that, I think the rooster may come from a non-Egyptian (Greek?) context. (4) While it is possible that the star represents Sirius and the moon represents Thoth, I think that those two together with Harpocrates are meant to represent the celestial lights in toto. (5) I don’t think that’s a cynocephalus next to the snake. (6) I suspect that the artist has conflated Ra, Osiris, Horus, and possibly a dead human, into the solar cycle.

Detail: Harpocrates.
Detail: Harpocrates.

I decided not to accept any of the identifications of the figures a priori, but to compare them to other representations. That said, I agree with the identification of the seated figure as Harpocrates because it has several of Harpocrates’ characteristic features. First, there is the finger-to-mouth gesture, representing childhood (though the Greeks misunderstood it as the “hush” gesture). Harpocrates is the Greek form of Heru-pa-khered (“the child Horus”), the embodiment of the newly risen sun. Second, Harpocrates is frequently depicted seated, although usually he is kneeling on a lotus. The lotus is often looks as if it is growing from a papyrus boat (31 out of 188 amulets in the CBMG database, or 16%). Third, Harpocrates frequently bears the nekhekh flail, which is how Sliwa has interpreted the object in the figure’s left hand. However, I think it represents a torch, another characteristic symbol of Baby Horus. Note the shape of the torch in the representation below and compare it to the shape on the Paphos amulet. In particular, I call your attention to the band that separates the flames from the top of the torch in the image below, and the line across the object on the Paphos amulet which divides the object transversely at approximately the same point. I suspect the torch may have been a Greek addition meant to symbolize his light-bringing nature (versus the Egyptian nekhekh). However, the Paphos depiction is sufficiently schematic that I wouldn’t bet the farm on any particular identification of the object in Harpocrates’ hand. It could also be a cornucopia, another of his symbols.

Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.
Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.

Finally, other Harpocrates amulets also show the god along with crocodiles (22/188, 12%), snakes (not counting ouroboroi, 22/188, 12%), birds (39/188, 21%), cynocephali (25/188, 13%), crescent moon and star (27/188, 14%), and even occasionally mummies (5/188, 3%), so the presence of all these elements on the Paphos amulet lends further credence that this is indeed Harpocrates.

I also looked at combinations of these elements.I found that 88% of the time, if both Harpocrates and a boat are present, there will also be some combination of the moon and star, birds, snakes, crocodiles, or cynocephali.

The mummy is a slightly different case. There are only five cases where Harpocrates appears along with a mummy that is clearly not Anubis, (which I treated as a separate case); of these, two of the five (40%) also feature a crocodile and a crescent moon and star. The remaining three feature, respectively: only a moon and star; only a falcon (though in this one the mummy seems to be blended with a papyrus boat); and nothing else.

So the Paphos amulet is not unusual (relatively speaking) in featuring Harpocrates, a mummy, crocodile(s), snake(s), bird(s), and a moon and star, and as far as that goes I think the archaeologists’ interpretation is good. As for the atypical aspects–Harpocrates being seated on a stool rather than a lotus, and apparently being mummified–none of the amulets in the CBMG database have these features. There is one amulet that shows Harpocrates holding a torch.

Detail: the "cynocephalus."
Detail: the “cynocephalus.”

But I am not as sold on the cynocephalus. The head of the figure is exactly the same round dot as the heads of Harpocrates and “Osiris”; there is nothing dog-like about it, whereas of the 19 amulets in the CBMG database with cynocephali on them, all have clear snouts. Moreover, the Paphos figure appears to be mummified when cynocephali were not (there are no cynocephali mummies in the CBMG database). As Sliwa details, the posture of the figure is not customary for depictions of cynocephali. So the only reason I can see for identifying this as a cynocephalus is that cynocephali were associated with Harpocrates in other images. Sliwa doesn’t state that in the work I quote above, but the connection was stated explicitly in some of the many articles I read in the popular press (for example, “the Greek god [Harpocrates] is usually depicted receiving the adoration of members of a dog-headed race of men, known as cynocephalus or cynocephali collectively…”, found here). There are 19 amulets in the CBMG database where Harpocrates is accompanied by one or more cynocephali (19/188, 10%). To me, 10% of the time is a far cry from “usually.”

It should be noted that in the context of Egyptian art, “cynocephalus” actually refers to baboons–specifically, the species known as Papio cynocephalus. Apparently, the Greeks thought they looked like dog-men, hence the appellation “dog-headed.” The baboon is one of the animals associated with Thoth. Of the 19 amulets with cynocephali, I found that 11 of them (58%) were clearly baboons. The remaining 42% were not identifiable beyond saying that they had snouts and were depicted in an otherwise-cynocephalus-like way (i.e., same posture). Interestingly, they usually feature raging erections.

In short, none of them looks anything like the figure on the Paphos amulet. Sliwa attributes the lack of similarity to recognizable cynocephali to the artist’s ignorance or lack of skill, and while I concede that might have been the case, when the differences so outnumber the similarities, I consider it pretty unlikely. I have an idea about this which I will come back to.

Detail: "Osiris" mummy in papyrus boat.
Detail: “Osiris” mummy in papyrus boat.

On to “Osiris” in the papyrus boat. It’s pretty clear what we have depicted here is indeed a mummy lying in a boat. It strikingly resembles this model from ca. 1900 BC:

mummy boat

We can clearly see the two steering oars at the stern, the body laid out in the middle, and the flat profile of the boat with high prow and stern.

But is the mummy Osiris? A boat with a crocodile underneath immediately brings to mind the solar barque, called Semektet, in which Ra passes through the Duat each night. The Semektet is attacked by Apep, the “Lord of Chaos,” depicted as a serpent or crocodile, who attempts to swallow Ra/the sun. Ra is assisted or attended by several other deities; for instance, in many representations, Set is the one shown destroying Apep.

Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.
Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.

Since Ra is mentioned in the inscription on the back of the Paphos amulet, that would seem to bolster this connection. However, Ra is always shown enthroned, and never as a mummy. Osiris on the other hand is commonly shown as a mummy, but usually standing up. There are plenty of pictures of recumbent mummies on boats, but most of these images seem to represent dead humans.

But the Graeco-Egyptian magical amulets differ from standard Egyptian iconography in certain respects, so could that be what is happening here? Interestingly, 4 out of 5 amulets (80%) in the CBMG database which show Harpocrates and a mummy show the mummy lying down. In the one below, the mummy and the boat actually seem to be merged:

Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?
Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?  The mummy’s feet seem to curl up like the prow of the papyrus boat, and there are falcons perched fore and aft, as is frequently the case on depictions of Harpocrates’ boat.

If a mummy and a boat could be blended, could something similar be going on with the Paphos amulet? I think to answer this question we first have to consider why Harpocrates was so often represented in a boat.

I could not find much supporting documentation, although see this analysis of another amulet, but it seems likely that this is a version of the solar barque. Ra, the mature sun, sails the boat into the west, where both pass into the Duat. There, he battles Apep each night, to emerge victorious as the morning sun, represented either as the scarab Kheperer, or as a child with identical iconography to that associated with Harpocrates in Ptolemaic times. Because both Ra and Horus were associated with the sun, they were sometimes fused into Ra-Heru-Akhety (“Ra who is Horus of the Horizons”), or Ra-Horakhty, in later Heliopolitan myth. So, we can connect Ra with Horus and Harpocrates, and all three with the theme of the daily sun cycle via the solar barque.

But the usual captain of the Semektet boat is enthroned and alive, not lying down “dead.” For the boat’s occupant to be dead would contradict the entire mythic message of the solar journey. However, there is another deity besides Horus who is associated with rebirth, and that of course is Osiris, or Serapis as he would have been to the Greeks. But Osiris is usually shown reanimated and standing. Then we have to consider the similarity of the recumbent mummy in a boat to depictions of dead humans (e.g., pharaohs), like the model above.

The theme of rebirth and the immortal soul is important to mortal humans, so it seems not unreasonable that a person commissioning or using an amulet such as this one might be interested in seeing a depiction of a rebirth in “human” terms. In other words, I wonder whether the usual iconography of Osiris and Harpocrates could have been blended with the iconography of dead kings in order to reinforce the theme of death/rebirth.

This ties in with the figure of the “cynocephalus.” Egyptologist María Rosa Valdesogo has drawn a connection between the djat ra (“the hand to the mouth,” referring to bringing food to the mouth) gesture, breastfeeding, and the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, she states (my emphasis):

“1) The deceased, assimilated to Osiris, became a new born and needed to nurse his mother Nut’s breast milk. This way he started his new life in the Hereafter.

“2) The image of Horus as a child suckling at Isis’ breast also granted the dead’s resurrection, since Horus was the avenger who eliminated the evil (Seth) and recovered the Udjat eye as a symbol of the final resurrection.”

The djat ra figured in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony “indicating that in some moment of that ancient Egyptian rite the dead’s mouth would symbolically be opened as a new born who needs to suckle.”

In the Opening of the Mouth ceremony (New Kingdom), the sem priest enacts a gesture of opening the mouth of the deceased with his little finger. At the (Old Kingdom) mastaba at Qar, the djat ra gesture is also made by a male embalmer and a female professional mourner. In the female’s case, the gesture could relate to breastfeeding, but what about the males? Valdesogo suggests the gesture was also tied to clearing mucus from a baby’s mouth at birth. Mind you, I suspect that action too would have been performed by women in the quotidian context; but I see no reason why “female” real-life activities could not be symbolized through formal ritual gestures performed by a male. Regardless, the gesture would be associated with life-giving actions performed toward a newborn.

So we have here a connection, or as Valdesogo puts it, an assimilation, between Osiris, the Child Horus (a.k.a., Harpocrates), and the deceased-and-resurrected individual. And, while Valdesogo’s ideas are speculative, they do give a rationale for why the Paphos amulet might depict a mummified person with their hand to their mouth in the “childhood” gesture, as well as why Harpocrates appears to be wearing mummy bandages. Could this figure be a deceased person, newly reborn and seeking the “food” or “breath” of new life?

Now, look at the direction the figures on the Paphos amulet are facing. From the position of the steering oars, we know the boat is sailing to the right. Above and to the right, the not-a-cynocephalus above it is facing left, and above that and to the left, Harpocrates is also facing left. Following their gazes, I see a counter-clockwise circle–from the deceased person in the boat, to the deceased now newly-reborn, to Harpocrates enthroned among the heavens, and so on. Admittedly, a counter-clockwise circle would be a little unusual for something associated with a solar cycle. I don’t have an explanation for that.

If I am correct, then the solar barque has been “assimilated” with the funerary barque. Which totally makes sense given that in tomb paintings, the resurrected pharaoh rides in the solar barque with Ra. After all, it’s due to these tomb paintings that we even have depictions of the solar barque, so it has a concrete association with funerary contexts.

Now for the animals. Given the ubiquity of animal triads including crocodiles, snakes, and birds in amulet representations of Harpocrates, it seems not unreasonable to think the animals on the Paphos amulet were meant to have more or less the same symbolism. But of course there’s no reason to suppose they only symbolized one thing. The bird is so schematic that while it does look rooster-like, I am not convinced that it couldn’t be a falcon, heron (the Bennu phoenix), or even a goose (a symbol of Amun-Ra, but Harpocrates is often shown riding a goose), another bird associated with Harpocrates. The rays around its head do look like some representations of Anguipes, better known as Abraxas. If it is a rooster though, I wonder if that could be a Graeco-Roman addition. Roosters have been associated with the morning in many cultures because of their morning crowing. (Not that they bother to wait until sunrise to crow. They crow whenever they damn well please. Jerks.)

Harpocrates moon star

Finally, we have the crescent moon and star. Sliwa suggests the star is Sirius, indicating an association between rebirth of Horus during the rise of Sirius that coincided with the annual Nile floods. That is of course possible. However, I observed on the gems in the CBMG database that 14% of the Harpocrates amulets had the same crescent moon and star (see image above). But interestingly, in between these was a solar disk on top of Harpocrates’ head. So in these amulets you have the moon, sun, and star(s) all in a row. In the Paphos amulet, the moon and star are slightly displaced, but Harpocrates himself is the sun, so the sun is still between the moon and star. Therefore I think these three have to be read as a suite that represents all the lights of heaven. I don’t know why a sun god is depicted with “nighttime” phenomena like the moon and stars except to say that his influence seemingly spread to all the heavens.

To conclude, yes, the artist of the Paphos amulet wasn’t the most skilled amulet-maker. And maybe they really didn’t understand the details of standard Egyptian iconography, but I think it’s more relevant to the amulet’s history that it was used in a context rather removed from Egypt. To me it looks like the meaning of the solar/resurrection myth has been kept intact and depicted quite thoroughly; but the elements have been even more explicitly tied to the human death/rebirth cycle, perhaps bringing it more into the fold of the Graeco-Roman mysteries. It could be that the artist was copying another amulet, but still none of the meaning was lost. I can only imagine it was used either by a closet pagan–the mysteries had actively been persecuted by Christians for at least a century–or a magician who would have had the occult knowledge to read the text and pictures. So while my interpretation doesn’t differ too greatly from Sliwa’s, I think that familiarity with the WMT and the mystery religions allows us to see it as a really fascinating artifact instead of just a kind of bastardized Egyptian scene.

On appropriation

What is appropriation? And what does it mean for magic?

Appropriation is a topic that circulated through the magical blogosphere a couple years ago, but it still gets referred to frequently in passing. Honestly, I am tired of it. But it seems de rigeur that one should articulate a position on the topic, and I kind of promised I would when I wrote about Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival. I hate to conform to trends, but on the other hand, the worries about appropriation are a reflection of wider social trends in the West and I do think it is useful to critically consider the issue, so here I go…generating more questions than answers.

I am not even going to address the ubiquitous hipster violations of good taste. I’m talking to, and about, people making respectful, good-faith efforts not to trespass on or steal from others.

appropriation

Just to get straight to the point, my opinion is that the real problem is usually not appropriation per se, but alienation or de-contextualization. I guess you could say that I am turning the point of view around, from focusing on the alleged perpetrator to focusing on the implications for the relationships involved. There are two areas of concern: operational and ethical.

Appropriation means co-opting elements of other people’s culture without consent. There is a lot of hand-wringing about it in well-meaning, liberal or “progressive” circles, but mostly it stays in the realm of talk. Calling an injustice out as such is an important task and I don’t want to denigrate that or discourage anyone from doing that, but most of what I see nowadays, from all political sides, is more group-identity-signalling as opposed to any attempt to actually change anything. I don’t intend to go into all the ramifications of white privilege here, because I’m only addressing one aspect of that, I could not possibly hope to cover it comprehensively, and I feel it’s already been done more eloquently than I am capable of. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the issues involved. The only reason I am addressing this topic at all is that I want to bring up some points I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere, that I think are worth consideration.

Operational issues

We in the West are heavily invested in essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, gender, and race that developed along with our imperial ambitions. But contrary to our wishes, cultures are not bounded entities. They have always been permeable, negotiable, in flux–they form, separate, regroup, identify, and reinvent themselves with reference to other groups of people. Even when human population density was very low, due to Homo sapiens’ propensity to move around and covet shiny stuff, human communities were in direct and indirect contact with other groups, exchanging stuff, ideas, and bodily fluids. Yet for some reason, even though reality keeps slapping us in the face with the inadequacy of our models, we don’t easily let go of them.

Archaeologists call the spread of technologies, styles, and objects from group to group “diffusion.” Sometimes it happens through imitation of something seen at a distance; sometimes it happens through direct teaching. At what point does this normal human behavior become the dreaded appropriation?

Anyone active in the Western Magical Tradition is the beneficiary of cultural diffusion. Some major cultural threads in the WMT include Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian, just to name a few. The populace of Alexandria 2000 years ago don’t seem to have been too fussed about the potential ethical perils of syncretism–their focus was operational: Does this work, or doesn’t it?

Abraxas stone
Abraxas stone

These are the operational questions as I see them:

1. If you take X out of its original context, will it still work? Will there be undesirable blowback?

It’s in the magician’s best interest to tread carefully, since we may attract more than rolled eyes and tsk-tsking if we err. (Though–full disclosure–I have not yet been smitten by any wrathful beings. As far as I know.) Magic tends to bring one into the orbit of the sacred, or at least the uncanny. And though globalization is nothing new, its scale is certainly magnified compared to pre-steam engine days; so all of us are constantly within the orbit of other cultures, ethnicities, and identities. Safety requires knowing what you are doing, and more importantly, knowing when you don’t know. Working with magical “tech,” deities or spirits, or charged objects outside their original context means you are taking them into terra incognita. You won’t know how they are going to react until you try, and hopefully you understand there is risk attached to that. Then it’s a matter of pivoting and course correcting as necessary to avoid calamity.

Of course, not everyone is agreed as to what works: e.g., some have argued that deities from different pantheons can’t play nice together; others say it’s no big deal, and rightly point out that pantheons have been mixed since forever. Some have argued that you can’t cherry pick deities from a pantheon, but must work with an entire pantheon together (e.g., multiple posts on this blog); chaos magicians would beg to differ. If we assume that deities and spirits are sufficiently au courant to understand the workings of, e.g., cars, vaccinations, and paper money, why wouldn’t we think that they understand globalization?

2. Can X be known/have meaning outside its original context?

Every attempt to reconstruct or revive religions of old involves de-contextualization (and re-contextualization). Take druidry for example. What we really know about druidry in ancient times pretty much boils down to something something oak trees something something mistletoe something something wicker men. The rest is cobbled together from the testimony of lying and/or baffled Romans, de-contextualized interpretations of de-contextualized oral literature, and UPG. Authenticity is really unattainable, and every act that makes these religions more relatable for us probably alienates it from its original setting. This doesn’t make revived religions invalid, but these uncomfortable facts should not be allowed to go unrecognized. If results is your only metric of success, then the proof is in the pudding. If, on the other hand, your magic is theurgic or goetic, you would presumably care about the answer(s) to this question. Which brings me to the third issue…

3. Are the deities, or spirits, or ancestors, etc. ok with it?

When it comes to dealing with Otherworld beings, I’m not particularly swayed by humans’ dickering over legitimacy and authenticity. If I’m going to be working magically with an inner contact, deity, etc., it seems to me the only person who’s qualified to determine if that’s ok is the being in question. Of course, since my conversations with that being would be UPG, I wouldn’t presume to tell others that my way is the right way for all.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to serve a deity in a religious context, and that religion were still a living tradition, then it would only make sense to become initiated within that tradition. If that were not possible, I wouldn’t claim to be a priestess of that deity.

Ethical issues

The main ethical issue with appropriation in the modern context is whether an empowered group, by co-opting material culture or traditions from a disempowered group, is effectively using that theft as a club to further beat the subaltern down. (Intentionally or not.) Most complaints about appropriation–so far as I have seen–are triggered by the dominant group secularizing and commodifying something sacred to the marginalized group.

1. Is it possible to not appropriate from others?

I think it’s impossible not to appropriate, and that being the case, the term becomes useless. We need vocabulary to distinguish qualitative differences in “appropriation.” To my view, this complicates discussion of the topic. In cultural studies parlance, it’s impossible for, say, African-Americans to be “racist” towards whites, for for women to be “sexist” towards men, because African-Americans and women don’t have the power of an entire social system behind them. In other words, they can feel the bias, but they can’t enforce it.If we extend the same rationale to appropriation, then a disadvantaged group “borrowing” from the dominant culture is not appropriation; and conversely, no matter how innocent the intent, when the dominant group “borrows,” it is always appropriation. So you can see how neither “diffusion” nor “appropriation” really works to cover all aspects of the dynamic.

Globalization is nothing new, and neither are differential power dynamics. Like it or not, de- and re-contextualization are an inevitable part of the interaction of human communities. You don’t think Gravettian mammoth hunters were complaining about those tacky Neandertals appropriating their backed foliate side scrapers or whatever? Well maybe not, but I’ll wager it started up not too long after that.

Consent or permission seems like a pretty good rubric for what is ok to use and what isn’t, but what if we’re talking about the culture of dead ancestors? I mean, we can and undoubtedly should ask those ancestors, but the answer will always be UPG and thus not necessarily universally applicable. I look at this problem much as I do at eating: Since humans are not autotrophs, it’s impossible for us to eat without killing something; but it’s still possible to approach the issue consciously and conscientiously and define a system of personal ethics in light of one’s values. Similarly, viewed in the long duree, appropriation may be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we get free license to be dicks about it.

2. Does using X out of context cause unintentional harm? Who gets to determine that? And who then determines the appropriate remedial action or laws?

I know who should not determine those things: The privileged, young, white, liberal, “progressive” Westerners who would like to. As much as they like to think they have the moral high ground for calling attention to the evils of appropriation, there is danger inherent even in anti-appropriation stances: to wit, racial or cultural essentialism and white-guilt-as-noblesse-oblige. Declaring an anti-appropriation stance requires drawing unrealistic notional bounds around cultures–mistaking your abstract heuristic model for reality. This has always been a prerogative of the empowered. Another prerogative is the claim to speak for the disempowered. Even if my intentions are good, if I as a white American draw the boundaries, am I not just reasserting and reifying my own relatively more empowered status? It’s all fine and good to recognize one’s own privilege, but who gives me the right to be the appropriation police?

It is for the harmed to determine whether harm has been done; and yet I have seen claims of appropriation that I think are frankly a bit of a stretch. Just because you personally are offended by something does not mean it is systemic oppression.

In any event, the best remedy is probably going to be an honest assessment of just how much one doesn’t know, and then a respectful, kind, but wary approach to finding out more. A sincere effort not to be a jerk combined with willingness to take responsibility and make amends if necessary seems to me like a good general policy in human relations.

So that is my statement on that.