The Star.Ships conversation

Milky Way.jpg

Hey everybody. Long time, no post, huh? I am working at a temp job which is mind-numbingly tedious and at the end of the day I am fried and have no writing in me. This could, possibly, turn into a permanent position and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a question of whether the fear of continued unemployment is greater than the fear of this particular employment.

Anyway. I think we’ll all be musing on the implications of Gordon White’s Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits for a long time, and hopefully this will generate an ongoing and edifying conversation. I have the feeling that this root will produce many and varied branches. And so with that in mind, here are my preliminary thoughts.

Recontextualizing magic and human history

When I was a teenager and living in Spain, one of the princesses got married in Sevilla, where I lived. Prior to the wedding the city went to great pains to get spiffed up, which included laying new pavement in the Plaza de los Reyes, between the Cathedral and the Alcázar (the royal family’s residence when they are in town). As soon as they took up the old cobbles, they started turning up archaeological remains, including the place where people would do their ablutions before entering the mosque (now the Cathedral). They got down to the Visigothic period and then basically said, “Eh, fuck it.” They could have kept digging indefinitely: under the Visigothic would be the Roman layers, under that the Greek and Pheonician and Celtic, under that the Bronze Age, then the Neolithic, and on and on back to who knows when. They couldn’t possibly go all the way down to bedrock before the royal wedding, and the archaeologists probably didn’t have the funding anyway. So they just stopped at an expedient point, backfilled, and called it good.

That memory kept coming back to me as I read Star.Ships. It’s a good analogy for what our historical understanding of magic has been until the recent attempts to recontextualize it. On one level, we surmised that some form of magic went way back into our “primitive” past, but after you pass the PGM and Alexandria, you start to lose the threads. Plus there’s the whole materialist orthodoxy to struggle against, so we collectively said, “Eh, fuck it.” We picked an expedient place to be the beginning of the WMT and called it good.

In Star.Ships, Gordon is arguing that, by taking a synthetic (as in “pertaining to synthesis,” not as in “fake”), cross-cultural, and comparative approach and using multiple lines of evidence, you can in fact trace magical threads into the deep past. And in doing so, you discover some interesting things about human history generally–because it turns out that magic is intricately intertwined with the story of Homo sapiens.

Now I have to say this was extra exciting for me because the research I did for my dissertation was synthetic, cross-cultural, comparative, and relied on multiple lines of evidence. It also had everything to do with magic, although I wasn’t allowed to say that out loud. My research was profoundly out of step with the current intellectual mode in archaeology. Cultural anthropologists generally thought it was very interesting, and my advisor (who got his Ph.D. in 1980, a very different time intellectually) thought it was, to use his favorite word, “delightful.” He was perpetually baffled by my utter failure to secure any grant money. At first I was too, but after a few years I got savvy to what was happening. But I finished it anyway, because fuck that. I am of the opinion that anthropology is by definition cross-cultural and comparative, and yes, that has led to racist excesses; but to disavow that methodology is to scuttle the entire project of anthropology and archaeology. Star.Ships is what I imagine a Ph.D. thesis would be like if archaeology weren’t forced to maintain its methodological materialism and scientism (or would be if Gordon added 100 pages of boring literature review) and I feel totally vindicated by it. Gordon has repeatedly emphasized (in the book and subsequent interviews) that comparison per se is not bad, indeed quite the contrary, but it’s important to be discerning about your comparanda. In Star.Ships he has presented well-researched, intellectually rigorous, and parsimonious arguments that meet that standard.

Challenges to orthodoxy

Scarlet Imprint promised that “minds will be blown” in reading Star.Ships. And my mind was no exception.

In fact, I noted with some interest that the things that blew my mind were generally different than those that blew Gordon’s podcast interviewers’ minds. For example, I already knew about Göbekli Tepe and that Homo sapiens lived alongside other hominins for longer than we have been solo. But I was surprised at how persuasive I found Gordon’s evidence regarding a Southeast Asian/Sundaland home for sophisticated palaeolithic culture, and the construction and purpose of the pyramids.

In the case of Sundaland, I was simply unaware of the genetic evidence for dispersal from this region, or the very early dates for cultivation of certain crops such as rice and taro. This is something I plan to look into further on my own as it is totally fascinating.

The pyramids were another matter. Although I have grown a lot intellectually since leaving academia (ironically?) and no longer accept a priori the judgments of knowledge-production factory hacks, I still have been skeptical of some alt.history claims about, e.g., the age of the pyramids. In part that’s because I was mainly exposed to the more wackadoodle end of the alt.history spectrum (AAT et al), but the bigger issue was that I am not an Egyptologist. We can’t be experts in everything, and it falls to each of us to decide whom to trust in the areas where we lack expertise. Too often, we award that trust based on membership in our in-group (however we define it) over actual knowledge. For me, academic archaeologists have been my in-group for virtually my whole adult life. Yes, I know some of them are cranks, a disturbing number are misogynistic pigs, and then there is Zahi Hawass, who is in an asshat league all his own; yet, being familiar with and mostly secure in the methods of archaeological knowledge production, I accepted the general Egyptological wisdom that the pyramids were tombs of the pharaohs. I mean, that “truth” is so widely accepted within academia and conventional history that I am ashamed to say it honestly never occurred to me to challenge it. I could imagine challenges to the dates, say, or the construction methods, but I accepted the purpose as a given.

It is generally held by archaeologists that, given enough time and Turks*, even humans armed only with stone tools can build a monument. But the data that Gordon presents now make it clear to me that the reign of Khufu was simply not long enough, nor the entire population of Egypt big enough, to build the Great Pyramid with copper tools during his lifetime. Similarly, I knew that no mummies had been found in the pyrammids, but accepted that this was due to grave robbing. I had never even heard of the heb sed ritual and how it related to the architectural complexes surrounding the pyramids. Anyway, long story short, my mind is now thoroughly blown by the fact that there aren’t more challenges to the tomb hypothesis even from within the hoary halls of academe.

I can’t help but get a little chuckle over the irony: Materialist-scientistic academics are utterly resistant to the idea that myths encode real history (unless, of course, that history can be boiled down to something entirely material and un-mythic in nature), yet are completely hogtied by their own mythology. But ’twas ever thus with zealots–they can’t see that their beliefs are beliefs.

*The Turks thing is kind of an inside joke, referencing the large numbers of (Ottoman) Turkish laborers employed by early Egyptologists and antiquarians.


My dissertation research focused heavily on prehistoric Japan, a subject not well known in the West. Partly this is because Japanese archaeologists only started publishing in English relatively recently, and few Westerners have been willing or able to do the work necessary to learn Japanese language and culture sufficiently well to work with Japanese archaeologists. (And probably not by accident, none of them–so far as I know–are women.) The Japanese are as insular as the British, both geographically and culturally, but their language is more inconvenient for Westerners.

Although Gordon doesn’t really go into it, I think that Japanese archaeology offers some really tantalizing hints that Sundaland may indeed have been a center of Palaeolithic human occupation and subsequent dispersal. For example:

  • Gordon mentions the findings of a 2013 genetic study showing trans-Pacific contact in Ainu blood samples, going back possibly as far as 10,000 years ago: “If you are looking for the smoking gun for global sea travel right at the end of the Ice Age, then this may turn out to be it” (p. 70). This was exciting for me because I have long hypothesized that the Ainu (and before them, perhaps the Jomon, who most anthropologists believe were ancestral to the Ainu) were sailing to Alaska, if not further down the North American coast. We have archaeological and ethnographic evidence that the Ainu and Jomon were/are deep sea fishers, hunting big sea mammals on the open ocean. From the islands of present-day Japan it is but a short hop up to Sakhalin, then to the Kamchatka peninsula, then along the Aleutians to Alaska. Japanese fishing floats wash up in Alaska all the time (I own three that were collected in the 1960s, and a friend of mine found one just a couple weeks ago), which suggests that the currents facilitate, or at least don’t impede, travel in that direction. Next, though I can’t quantify it, I have always felt impressionistically that Ainu art (e.g., as reflected by their textiles) is stylistically reminiscent of the art of the Pacific Northwest. And since the 1970s, the Ainu have taken to carving totem poles which they describe as a nod to their cultural affinity with Pacific Northwest Coast peoples. That can be–and has been–put down to environmental influences: the Ainu and Pacific Northwest Coast peoples are all “affluent foragers” living in food-rich environments around the north Pacific. But, between you and me, I don’t think that’s enough to explain it. Now we have genetic evidence that suggests I was right.
  • The Japanese language is something of a mystery. It’s classed as an Altaic language along with Korean and Turkish (among others), and is recognizably similar to Korean, although not as close as you might expect for countries that geographically close. It has been suggested (I don’t remember by whom) that Japanese is descended from a dialect of ancient Korean which is now extinct. I think that’s a likely possibility, but many linguists have noticed that Japanese has some vocabulary which is probably Austronesian in origin, and Okinawans even more so. Quoth Wikipedia, Austronesian “is a language family that is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean…” (Sundaland and its diaspora, in other words.) Archaeologically, we know that people from the Korean peninsula began to settle in Japan around 500 BC. It is an unusually clear case of foreign settlement, with people who looked drastically different from the native Jomon population and used different technology. That may be when the Korean elements of what would become Japanese language arrived, becoming superimposed on an earlier, perhaps proto-Austronesian, language.
  • William Solheim considers prehistoric Japan to have been part of his Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network, whereof he says, “I now define Nusantao as natives of Southeast Asia, and their descendants, with a maritime-oriented culture from their beginnings, these beginnings probably in southeastern Island Southeast Asia around 5000 BC or possibly earlier.” (I realize this is inside baseball if you haven’t read the book yet.) And seriously, I require an explanation as to why maritime traders in Southeast Asia/Sundaland would not have gone slightly north to visit Japan.
  • Japan currently boasts the oldest pottery in the world at about 14,000 years old. That means that not only is that pottery completely unassociated with the other elements of the “Neolithic revolution” as defined by V. Gordon Childe (e.g., settled villages, agriculture), but it dates to the end of the Palaeolithic. Pottery of similar age has been found in maritime Russia and Jeulmun pottery of Korea dates back to 10,000 years ago–again, without any other elements of the “revolution.” This earliest pottery was very simple and crudely made, decorated with simple fingernail impressions, but around 5,000 years ago, Jomon pottery became very elaborate. I can only describe it as 3D psychedelia. This was pottery made by hunter-gatherers, people who usually don’t bother with pottery because let’s face it, who wants to drag a set of china all over the landscape? However, around the northern Pacific, food was so plentiful up until recent times, that hunter-gatherers could live in permanent villages (though these post-date the first pottery by a few thousand years). Note that like Sundaland, Japan was not glaciated during the last ice age.
  • Based on Gordon’s summary of Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Japanese mythology definitely retains some Gondwanan features. For the most part, Japanese/Shinto myth is a collection of barely-related tales about the creation of specific things or places, or vignettes about the deities. This isn’t unique to Japan, but, given the Sundaland-adjacent geography and the apparently Austronesian stratum in the language, it could arguably be a holdover from pre-flood Sundaland.
  • When the Kennewick Man skeleton (dated to about 9,000 years ago) was first analyzed by biological anthropologists, they compared his facial morphology to anthropological databases with measurements from thousands of individuals grouped by culture and geography. These measurements are the same ones used by forensic anthropologists to identify missing people’s skulls. KM was found to be most similar to the Ainu (the Wikipedia page says Polynesian/Southeast Asian, but James Chatters personally told me Ainu). And the Ainu have been recognized to be the most similar of all modern groups to the ancient Jomon. Chatters speculated to me that KM’s features were of a putative type ancestral to both Ainu and modern Native Americans. The most recent genetic analysis, from 2015, indicates that KM is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other extant group. However, as mentioned above, it is very possible that KM falls within the period of trans-Pacific contact after the flood. KM’s maternal (mitochondrial) DNA haplogroup is X2a, of which Wikipedia says, “Sub-group X2 appears to have undergone extensive population expansion and dispersal around or soon after the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago.” Haplogroup X is pretty rare generally, even in North America, but unlike the haplogroups more common in Native Americans, X is also not common in East Asia. It is found in low levels in Southern Europe, Caucasia, and the Near East. This suggests that the conventional model of the settlement of the Americas (East Asians crossing the Bering land bridge) is insufficient to explain the observed genetic variation, and that KM belonged to a population with a different ultimate source. Although by itself the distribution of Haplogroup X cannot confirm Gordon’s hypothesis of post-glacial maritime diaspora, it is consistent with such a model.

So basically, everything about Jomon Japan has been regarded as a weird, isolated mystery. But what if it was instead the northern hinterland of Sundaland? Could it show us a glimpse of the cultural complexity that once existed, or be an analogue for the embryonic civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Harappa?

I don’t have an answer to that. I’m just spitballing here. I’m no more expert in the archaeology of Southeast Asia (or the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic transition at the end of the ice age) than I am in Egyptology–but now I have learned my lesson about accepting any just-so stories.

Concluding thoughts

In no particular order, here are some other thoughts engendered by my reading of Star.Ships:

  • Boats and seafaring were way more important, way earlier, than has been recognized.
  • Europe was a really crappy little backwater for most of history.
  • Our relationship with certain deities–such as the Civilizing Trickster and Underworld Goddess–is much older than previously recognized. This is not necessarily saying that all Civilizing Tricksters are the same Civilizing Trickster, but it does raise some interesting questions. (I don’t have answers.)
  • Fears of cultural appropriation in magic pale in comparison to the ancient roots that all magic appears to share.
  • It occurred to me that the modern space programs are, like magic (and as Chris Knowles has argued, they are often the same thing), recontextualized as a much longer-term human project to connect with the stars. But what does it mean that this project is now framed in materialist terms? (I have a horrible vision here of some monstrous Neil deGrasse Tyson x Zahi Hawass hybrid.) What happens to Nuit when she is reduced to balls of flaming gas in empty space? Do we have to relocate the Otherworld? Or is materialist space science/travel merely building an addition onto our virtual reality prison?

This last point gets us closer to the heart of the book: Ultimately, Star.Ships asks us magical folk to take back our reality and our rightful role within it. I remember once in college when a pre-med friend of mine was opining that only M.D.s should have the right to be called “doctor,” and I was like, “Excuse me, Sawbones–philosophers were the original ‘doctors’ back when you were just a bunch of filthy barbers.” Like the non-medical doctors, we magicians have dropped the ball. We were the original philosophers of reality, ours the original “science”; it is our job to interface between our tribes and the world of the spirits, to be the memory-keepers and cunning-folk, but we have ceded our power and authority to the materialists. Now they deny we even exist. And we let them dictate reality to us? The very notion is absurd. So, are we just going to sit back and take it? Are we going to let our people struggle on alone? Can we stop worrying about gatekeeping “authenticity” and start working together to resist the hijacking of reality? Do you accept this “mission at the end of the world”?

It’s go time, wizards.

Science cosmogony

Big Bang cosmogony
Artist’s conception of the Big Bang cosmogony.

You know how sometimes you make a connection, and in retrospect it is so obvious that you feel like an idiot for not having seen it before? I guess these things are only obvious when you’re ready to understand them, I don’t know.

That happened to me today when I read this article. Now, the actual subject matter of the article seems interesting (I’d have to see if I could get ahold of the original journal article because popular science writing is trash; but even if I could, I probably wouldn’t understand it), but the part that jumped out at me was this:

“In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a ‘Big Bang’ did the universe officially begin.”

You know what is a synonym for singularity? Monad. When I read this I realized that the scientifically-approved cosmogony basically says that a Monad expanded and in that act everything was created.

Hmm…where have I heard a story like that before?

Pretty much, like, everywhere.

The timing was interesting because last night John Michael Greer published a post on Western occult philosophy, outlining the elements common to all or almost all “schools” of Western occult practice. One of those elements is:

A Cosmogony of Emanation. That’s a fancy philosophical label for the idea that the universe as we know it came into being as an emanation—an outpouring of force, if you will—from a transcendent source: that is, a source that stands outside of all phenomena and can’t really be described in any of the terms we use for phenomena.”

I wonder, had I not read that passage just last night, whether I would have seen the obvious parallel in science’s Big Bang cosmogony.

I am not one of those who seeks for a scientific basis or explanation for magic, because (1) I don’t believe that all things we don’t understand now will one day be understood through science; in fact, I doubt science as we understand it will even be around that much longer given that, as I see it, people are increasingly turning from such grand intellectual projects and toward ideas and practices with a more direct impact on survival, and ones that can provide a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Things for which physics is very ill-suited. Whether I’m right or wrong about that trend, ultimately magic can’t be crammed into a materialist paradigm, and science can’t work without one, so they are at an impasse. And (2) I just don’t see any need for it. I’m actually quite ok with not understanding how magic works. I’m more interested in why it works, but even there, I’m ok with mystery. I think the main reason we have no unified theory of magic is because magic is the unified theory, and until we accept that, we can’t make much progress in understanding the hows. From where I sit, magic explains science, not the other way around (both historically and phenomenologically).

Nevertheless it’s interesting when science and magic, in spite of their different ontologies, converge on similar ideas. Perhaps one day we will remember that science has its own mythology, and it will be put in its rightful place among the world’s mythologies, in some Golden Bough of the future, and it will be obvious how much its myths had in common with those of other times and cultures.

Speaking of, I particularly like the Heliopolitan cosmogony–where Atum coalesces out of Nun, becomes Kheperer “the Becomer”, and Ra–because through the Egyptian mythology it is evident that this was not so much a sequence of events as an allegorical way of rendering emanation (somewhat) understandable to the puny human mind. Effectively, everything that is is Atum, but also Nun, and also Kheperer, and also Ra, and this eternally and coevally. (It becomes evident that Ra is more than just the sun god.) As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. Pretty sure the Egyptians had a waaaaaay more sophisticated understanding of time than we do, and actually, that physics article I cited might have come around to a non-theistic version of the same idea.

Compare it to this one, from the Manavadharmashastra, or “Laws of Manu”, “the most important work regarding dharma, i.e., the principles, laws, and rules governing both the cosmos and human society” (i.e., what we call “physics”). I have collapsed stanzas 5-9 and 11-13 into a couple paragraphs for brevity:

“This (universe) existed in the shape of Darkness, unperceived, destitute of distinctive marks, unattainable by reasoning, unknowable, wholly immersed, as it were, in deep sleep. Then the divine Self-existent indiscernible, (but) making (all) this, the great elements and the rest, discernible, appeared with irresistible (creative) power, dispelling the darkness. He who can be perceived by the internal organ (alone), who is subtle, indiscernible, and eternal, who contains all created beings and is inconceivable, shone forth of his own (will). He, desiring to produce beings of many kinds from his own body, first with a thought created the waters, and placed [his] seed in them. That (seed) became a golden egg, in brilliancy equal to the sun; in that (egg) he himself was born as Brahmin, the progenitor of the whole world….From that (first) cause, which is indiscernible, eternal, and both real and unreal, was produced that male (Purusha), who is famed in this world (under the appellation of) Brahmin.

“The divine one resided in that egg during a whole year, then he himself by his thought  (alone) divided it into two halves; And out of those two halves he formed heaven and earth, between them the middle sphere, the eight points of the horizon, and the eternal abode of the waters.”

We also have this, from Hymn CXXIX from the Rig-Veda:

“1. Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

“2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

“3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

“4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

“6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

“7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

I love how this hymn seems to end with a shrug, like, “I don’t know, maybe nobody knows, whatever”. The parallels to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, including the creation of Shu, Tefnut, Nuit, and Geb are really striking (I went into a little more detail about it here if you didn’t see it).

Statue of Shiva Nataraja at CERN
Statue of Shiva at CERN.

It’s interesting that the authors of the paper are, respectively, an Egyptian and an Indian. It would be exciting to see the Egyptians and Indians resume their erstwhile places as the world’s foremost philosophers of cosmogony and cosmology.

Inevitably, noticing the Big Bang cosmogony is just another iteration of a story that people have told since it was first told to us sent me down a rabbit hole of philosophical speculation. In a sense, it’s very appropriate that there is a statue of Shiva Nataraja outside CERN, since, in Indian philosophical terms, they are researching the nature of dharma; they would be wise to invoke his patronage. The CERN bulletin explains the motivation thus:

“As a plaque alongside the statue explains, the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it. Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles.

(Emphasis added.) I never met my grandfather, a deeply religious man and a nuclear physicist, friend and colleague of Robert Oppenheimer, and one of the scientists drafted into working on the Manhattan Project, but from everything I’m told, I feel certain he was deeply disturbed by the use that research was put to. Later in his his career he researched potential applications of radiation in medicine, for which there is a scholarship in his name, which I think indicates how important it was to my grandfather that his work go toward promoting life rather than death. He lived and taught in India for a year and a half; perhaps he met Lord Shiva there. Oppenheimer, of course, is famous for saying the first atomic bomb detonation made him think of the line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Lo, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Here’s another bit of weird trivia–my grandmother, wife of the grandfather I describe here, and their daughter my aunt are both named Lela. Lela (or lila or leela) is, in Indian philosophy, a way of describing all of reality as divine, creative play. I doubt my Christian forebears had any knowledge of that. But that is synchronicity for you.

But while Indian philosophy weaves through physics in some unexpected ways, at the same time you can’t help but feel there’s a nudge and wink, and a whole lot of hubris, behind the CERN Shiva. Is Shiva there to remind them how puny we are in the divine play, lila, that is the cosmos? Or do they think we (humans) or they (scientists/physicists) are taking up his mantle?

One day we’ll remember that science is just one piece on the board, and not the game itself. In the meantime, thank Gods there are other weirdos to talk to about this stuff.

P.S. I have just ordered my copy of Gordon’s Star.Ships, so you can look forward to a review when I’m done reading it.

Nuit and the Duat

Thunder and the Milky Way by Christopher Eaton
Thunder and the Milky Way by Christopher Eaton

Nuit and the Duat is not the name of my occult rock band…yet.

I was struck by a comment during Gordon’s Rune Soup Podcast interview of Austin Coppock last week (right around the 58 minute mark), viz., that the Egyptian goddess Nuit is an underworld goddess. (“She sleeps underground,” quoth Gordon. Do listen to the podcast for the full context; the part referencing Nuit is just a couple of minutes if that.) I found this idea very intriguing; I never thought of Nuit in quite those terms. Nuit is most familiar as a sky goddess, yet as Gordon said (paraphrased), if you dig for the underworld you eventually dig your way to the stars. That brought me back to something that really fascinates me, the Egyptian concept of the Duat. So I pondered a bit on the relationship of Nuit and the Duat…


star glyphs

First I should clarify that the words “underworld” and “Otherworld” are how we render in English the Egyptian word/concept Duat. As I described in my post on Egyptian dreamworking, the word Duat is written with a hieroglyph of a five-pointed star within a circle. Star glyphs show up in words related to literal stars, as well as time (morning, hour, month), priesthood, worship, teaching, and a verb that literally means “to awake in the morning” but seems to be used to describe what we call in English a “dream”. Gordon may have much more to say about this when his book Star.Ships comes out (any day now!), but while I’m no expert on ancient Egypt, it seems clear to me that the word “underworld” doesn’t even come close to approximating what Egyptians meant by Duat. We have to work with what we’ve got, though, knowing much is lost in translation.

In a recent post I talked about chthonic Hermes, which means “Hermes of the Earth”, but by extension Hermes of (what we would call) the Underworld; which shows us that for the Greeks, the world of the dead was in/of the earth, so “of the earth” became a poetic metaphor for “of the (realm of the) dead”. Similarly, the existence of the English word “under-world” tells us that the notion of a world of the dead beneath that of the living (though perhaps not in/of the earth per se) also had currency within the Germanic-speaking world. But we have to get out of that headspace to even attempt to grasp the Egyptian concept of Duat. When Gordon says that Nuit is an “underworld goddess”, this should not be understood as meaning that her realm was in the earth. The Duat as a place is inseparable from the Duat as a state and as a time, and specifically, cyclical time. I believe this cyclicity is represented in the hieroglyph. I’d be lying if I said I could even close to wrap my head around this.

Milky Way over Devil's Tower by David Lane
Milky Way over Devil’s Tower by David Lane

In Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (highly recommended), Jeremy Naydler explains the mythic becoming-manifest of the universe. I am probably doing violence to the Egyptians’ beautiful and sophisticated ontology in my effort to summarize, but in the Heliopolitan cosmology as my puny brain understands it, Atum, all-that-is, the Monad, sort of self-coalesces out of the formless void that is Nun, symbolized as water. In this act of coalescence Atum is Kheprer, the act/process of becoming; Atum is the all and the eternal act of creating the all. Atum is the emergence of form from the formless and light from the darkness. As light, Atum is Ra. So Atum is Nun coalesced, and Kheprer and Ra, as well as, of course, Atum, because everything is Atum. Atum creates, by spitting or masturbating, Shu (air, space, atmosphere) and Tefnut (moisture), the first dyad or polarity. Through the sexual union of Shu and Tefnut, Nuit (sky) and Geb (earth) are born. However, Nuit and Geb came into existence as an undivided being, symbolized as two lovers in coitus. Shu separates them, air intervening between earth and sky, and the world and the gods become manifest/differentiated. There’s a repeated motif of one becoming two becoming one becoming two, until finally, with the separation of Nuit and Geb, all the myriad things come into being. You can see what I think is an echo of this cosmology in the Tree of Life (with Atum as Keter, and both Shu and Geb as Chokhmah, perhaps, and Tefnut and Nuit as Binah, etc.–you can map the same deities onto the Tree in different places maybe, and vice versa, but I need to think more on this); it is embedded very deeply within the ontology of the Western Magical Tradition.

Although our human brains and the constraints of language require us to describe this cosmology as a sequence, it is in fact eternal. As you can see from Egyptian paintings, all the generations of gods always-already coexist. As Naydler makes clear, earthly cycles–such as that of the sun rising and setting every day–were essentially seen as symbolic of, or analogues for, divine realities not constrained by time or linearity. Our reality is merely a reenactment. So the rising and setting of the sun is effectively a reification of the eternal becoming and totality of existence.

Where does the sun go when not visible above the horizon? It goes to the Duat, returning to (rejoining? re-becoming?) its non-physically-manifest essence. Naydler writes (pp. 24-26):

“…within Nut’s body is a region that is entirely invisible, entirely beyond the range of sense perception. When the sun enters this region it can no longer be seen, for it has entered a world that exists purely internally. Here there is no ‘external space’ in which it becomes manifest….[The Dwat] is less an Underworld than an innerworld; it is a deeply interior world. If we think of Nut, the goddess of the sky, symbolizing the spiritual order of being, then in passing from the stars that cover her flesh to the invisible interior of her body, we enter into this spiritual order that the visible stars merely gesture toward.

“…Though the Dwat may be conceived of as a kind of place, it is in reality less a place than a ‘condition of being’ that things have when they pass out of physical existence, and before they pass back again into physical existence. So it is where the dead go, and equally where the living come from. Just as the sun, when it rises in the east, is in fact born from the womb of the great goddess, so too are all creatures the children of her womb, the Dwat. All things that come into being in the manifest world come from the Dwat. That is where they preexist, before they are born into the light of day, and that is where they return having relinquished their physical forms.”

So if the visible portion of the solar cycle corresponds to the act of creation (Kheprer-Ra), at night it returns to a state of not-yet-become; there is thus an analogical relationship between the Duat and Nun, the unmanifest, though they are not the same thing any more than the sun is the same thing as the totality of existence. This cyclicity is further emphasized by the fact that the ruler of the Duat is Nuit’s son Osiris, who (in Naydler’s words) “governs the cycles of generation and destruction, of coming into being and passing away to which all creatures are subject.”

Andromeda by Beth Moon
Andromeda by Beth Moon

Why was the Duat understood to be/represented as within the body of Nuit, rather than within the body of Geb, or Shu, or Tefnut? Perhaps Gordon will give us his take on that in Star.Ships, but since it hasn’t come out yet, I shall speculate: The earth has its own cycles, of course, but it doesn’t participate in the cycle that unfolds in the sky every day. Each day, the sun runs its course from east to west and then the sky becomes dark and the stars become visible; by contrast, the earth remains relatively static. The solar cycle thus has an obvious symbolic correlation to the life cycles of mortal beings being born, living, dying. Nuit only becomes visible when the sun has “died”, so it makes all kinds of sense that the “place” you go when your physical manifestation dies, and the place from which new life emerges (like the rising sun), is mapped onto Nuit. But it must always be understood that this mapping was analogic. In the New Kingdom Book of Gates, the Duat is shown in the middle of Nun (there’s the resonance with Nun again). The text states, “Osiris encircles the Duat.” Osiris, whose body literally forms a circle, is depicted holding Nuit, who in turn holds up the sun (Ra) (this image can be found on Page 26 of Temple of the Cosmos). In this image, then, Osiris is the “veil”, the border of the Duat and thus the state (and act?) of transformation between physical and non-physical or inner and outer existence. And we see that Nuit is outside of this, in the manifest/visible world, as dependent on the Duat for her manifestation as is everything else in the universe. While the Duat is, in some sense, in her, it is also original to her.

I begin to get a sense of Egyptian ontology as a sort of pulse, an ebb and flow, of emanation/exteriorization/concretization. I can visualize it, but as yet I can’t find the words to describe it. At first I was ready to respectfully disagree with Gordon about Nuit  “sleeping underground,” but in the metaphorical sense of the word–something secret or hidden–it is perfect.

I suspect those of us who speak Indo-European languages have difficulty getting into anything remotely like Egyptian headspace because we are heirs to a very different Eurasian ontology/cosmology, hinted at in our vocabularies, in which the dead are below us and the gods are above us in “heaven” or an “upper world”. This spatial relationship is so fossilized in our languages that trying to talk outside of it is, to borrow Alan Watts’ phrase, rather like trying to bite your own teeth. So on the one hand, you have this Egyptian cosmology at the foundation of and ubiquitous within the WMT, but on the other, it remains damnably hard to grasp intellectually.

And maybe that’s for the best, as it forces us to experience it rather than abstracting it. It is a microcosm of the larger truth that these things can’t be accurately described in any language. Our words are just approximations of the reality, just as for the Egyptians, the world of sensory perceptions was a vague approximation of divine, cosmic realities.

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 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.

Trust is the hardest thing


I recently read Frater Acher’s series of articles on his “everyday” method of attaining the Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel (K&C of the HGA). K&C of the HGA is seen by some as central to working within the Western Magical Tradition, yet there are many takes on how one should seek it.

“What all of them have in common though is that they require you to work on yourself first; only then do you encounter another higher being. The focus of work moves from inward to outward. The raw stone has to be finished first before it can shift into the space that has been left empty for it in the temple. Our journey towards communion with our Holy Guardian Angel is a journey towards fulfilling, towards becoming what we are meant to be…Achieving this is the first step in a long journey, not the finishing line.”

I was attracted to Acher’s approach because there is nothing about it that precludes also using other methods, such as invoking the Headless/Bornless One or the agathodaimon, should that be one’s persuasion; also because it seems like plain common sense; also because it’s something I can start work on now, even though I don’t feel “ready” for K&C.

It is a facet of my personality that I don’t ever feel ready for anything except dinner. I love to plan, research, and dream, and sometimes I find that having done all that, my desire is sated and I no longer feel the need to carry out the plan. Although it’s contrary to all received wisdom, and frankly a mystery even to me, rather than having defined, achievable goals, I seem to stick with things better when I feel like I am stepping into a stream that started before I came on the scene, will occupy my whole lifetime, and continue long after my incarnation has exited the building.* Rather than being pulled by the future, I seem to be more pushed by the accumulated force of the past (not that time is really linear like that, but it’ll do for a model for now). It is easier for me to commit to something when it feels bigger than myself, as opposed to manageable milestones that I ostensibly control. I have nothing but admiration for those earthy types whose magic is practical, but I’m all fire and water, and there is just nothing practical about anything I do. I am trying to learn to be practical temporarily for situations that require it, but alas, my success rate is not high.

K&C of the HGA can be a very long process, operationally speaking; and it has certainly been around a long time. So this project satisfies my need to step into a continuous current. The first stage of Acher’s everyday approach to K&C of the HGA is trust. He explains:

“…it all starts with a choice. A choice to trust or not to trust. In my humble opinion that choice depends on the fact wether [sic] we have a stable point to hang our trust onto. A fixed point, a guiding star, a hand that we trust to never let us down.

From my experience this is the real veil of Paroketh, this is the real guardian of the threshold – our fear to trust. Because before we can know anything about, long before we can commune with our Holy Guardian Angel we have to trust that it exists. We have to learn to believe. And the way we do this is by practice. By practice with the things that surround us, that we can touch, fear, feel, kiss, smell and breathe in. We practice on ourselves and with the people that surround us. Only then can we proceed to the things that we cannot touch, that are out of reach for our physical senses. So in order to lift this first veil we have to become experts in trusting.”

This is. So. Hard. I have a lot more trust in invisible, intangible things than I do in humans. Humans, in my experience, do not have a good track record of trustworthiness. Not only do we tend to let other humans down, we often stupidly put our trust in ephemeral and dangerous things, like emotions arising from post-coital hormone surges, cult leaders, elected officials, and banks. Maybe I am a particularly cynical, secretive, and mistrustful person. I have always prided myself on not having to get burned twice to learn my lesson. Yet at the same time, I have chided myself for my inability to trust. There have been times in the past when I have ignored my misgivings and given second, third, nth chances to someone just to defy my own prejudices. (The results never failed to disappoint.) I mistrust my own mistrust! I mistrust myself most of all.

angel icon

As you might infer from the above, I am not interested in magic as a path to worldly power or control. I have always been more mystically oriented, I guess that’s just how I roll. K&C of the HGA is one of the core mystical practices of the Western Magical Tradition, and though I don’t yet understand why, I trust that my predecessors in the Great Work were onto something.

Practice makes perfect. Practice lays the neural pathways that allow one kind of cognition and not another. Practice = learning. I learned to distinguish between intuition and imagination by trusting everything as if it were a true and correct intuition. I had to allow for the possibility that my perceptions could be accurate before I could determine which ones actually were. This is a process I am still working to refine, but refinement too comes through practice.

So I am now officially practicing trust. For me, this means that when I encounter something I fear, I choose instead to trust. In the past, I tried to overcome my mistrust through discipline and rationalization. That failed utterly. This time I am trying to approach it from a more sacred-playful perspective. This practice also requires me to sacrifice some things that have become precious to me, like my habit of secretiveness. This is perhaps all the harder because sacrifice is a devotional act, but I am not devoted to any specific path or deity. I have to be devoted to an alien feeling, i.e., trust, and an HGA about whose existence I am still rather skeptical.

This blog is one aspect of this project. I can already sense certain entrenched habits beginning to come unstuck, but only time will tell where it all leads.

*A little synchronicity: I had already written this post and was proofreading it. I decided I wanted a picture of an angel, and did an image search and found one that really jumped out at me. It turned out to be too small, but of all the hundreds of angel pictures, this one happened to link back to Josephine McCarthy’s blog, where she used the same fluvial analogy with regard to the HGA:

“…it is about who you are, your own unique deep connection with Divinity and your ability to think/feel like a river – a river does not rush from A to B in a predictable straight line… it meanders, races, stills, pushes boundaries, and swirls.”

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.


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.