Thursday, 18 September 2014
“Real Magick” in RPGs: Types of Magicians and “Magical Orders”
I’m going to break from talking about actual practices of magick to take a step back into addressing types of people and groups who do magick, to add more information on that subject in the specific context of “serious” practitioners of the western magical tradition.
These days, there are probably three broad categories of western occultist you could be likely to meet in a “realistic” modern-occult setting.
First, the seriously old-school (or to use a term from modern magick, “Old Aeon”). These are the guys who basically don’t like anything that came along in the world of occultism after about 1903. They identify with very traditional western magick, and more specifically with the Victorian interpretations thereof. Most of them have an affinity with the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (more about the Golden Dawn found later in this entry), and basically have a serious hate-on for Aleister Crowley. Some of these guys “graduated” into occultism from the new-age (particularly quasi-theosophical beliefs), though some got into it from more specific segments of occultism like astrology or kabbalah. They are, these days, a relative minority among occultists.
When encountered, they will be very vocal about “tradition”, like to use a lot of props in their ritual, don’t cut any corners, and will be quite focused on old-school style hermetic work. Lots of Hebrew, and maybe the occasional sanskrit that slips in there, but they’re generally not into “mingling” eastern techniques with their western magick. I would say that a lot of these guys are more “theory” than practice, but you could really say that about basically ALL of the types I’m describing; its just that these guy’s “theory” will quote a lot from medieval grimoires, pseudo-masonry or Rosicrucian sources, Eliphas Levi, etc. and will carry a general disdain for any novelty. They also generally tend to be prudes, both socially, morally, and magically squeamish.
Second, the new school: Thelema. “Thelema” is a greek word meaning “will”, and is the term referring to the general religious philosophy and school of magick that was created by and will forever be influenced by Aleister Crowley, who was basically about as much of a game-changer in the world of the occult as Einstein was in the world of Physics, Picasso in the world of art, or Elvis in the world of popular music. Note that not all magicians in this category would describe themselves as “Thelemites”, that is, a lot of them might not actually be DIRECTLY influenced by Crowley anymore; but if they are practicing your standard “mainstream” (inasmuch as you can call it that) hermetic magick these days, the authors they’re reading and the type of magick they’re doing is based on Crowley anyways.
In many ways, the “new school” guys are not so different from the “old school”, they don’t ultimately reject any of the symbols or basic practices of the 19th century magicians, but they have both modernized it, personalized it, and you could say “updated” it. These guys don’t stick to traditional ritual, but rather look at the building blocks of those rituals and make new iterations of it. The Kabbalah for them is still the Kabbalah, but rather than referring to just the traditional lexicon of kabbalistic concepts they want to create their own dictionary of words and images that are meaningful to them. At least, the really serious guys in this category will do that; the rest will just do the rituals that Crowley wrote, the way he wrote them, becoming in a sense the new conservatives.
Three big differences between the old school and the new are that the new school puts a big influence on the philosophy of self-transformation (defining magick as “the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity to the Will”, for that matter, you’ll hear “true will” bandied about quite a lot), individualism and respect for but not blind hierarchical obedience to spiritual authority; that they put a much bigger emphasis on personal revelation and personal “astral visions” (or whatever you want to call it), basically suggesting that a big part of the magical work is to experience altered perceptions and other dimensions of your being, and take very seriously the insights that these provide (for many of the new school, this includes incorporating both sex and drugs into their magical practice, something that Crowley was really big on and that the old school tends to seriously dislike); and that they will tend to be much more open to synthesis with all kinds of non-western influences. “New School” magicians and old-school magicians both tend to accept that there is a “Perennial philosophy”, that all esoteric practices of every culture are basically different ways of describing the same magical “formula” for self-transformation, but the “new school” people have taken this to mean that there is a benefit to incorporating sources that weren’t traditionally part of western-magick into their practices; so you have things like the “Voudoun-Gnostic Workbook” or the “Voodoo Tarot”, the borrowing of rituals from tribal shamanic practices, significant interest in sufism, and most especially in the esoteric parts of the big three eastern religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. The parts they like to borrow from these religions tend to be the radical esoteric practices, things like Tantrism or Taoist Alchemy.
On the other hand, the New School guys are generally less inclined to include Christian symbolism than the old school. Also, the new-school guys are the most likely to interact with the general Wiccan and Pagan subcultures and self-identify as “pagans” (though sometimes with the caveat that they aren’t like “normal” neo-pagans, or that they’re more serious about it, or whatever).
Like I said above, just as many of the “old school” guys will be more “theory” than “practice”, so will most of the new-school guys; only their “theory” will be a lot more talking about received Holy Books, someone else’s (usually Crowley’s) astral visions of the kabbalistic tree of life or the Enochian Aethyrs, talking about the True Will, or about “sex magick”.
New school guys generally tend to think that “old school” guys are reactionary farts who “have the ritual but don’t understand it”, and that the “Really New school” guys are “posers” who are “too lazy” to study serious magick and don’t know what they’re doing.
Thirdly, the REALLY New School, or “Chaos magicians”. Sometime around the early 1980s, a new kind of post-modern movement started springing up among the magick subculture of what was quickly termed “chaos magick”; this is a movement that basically rejects the old style of ritual completely (or at most, defines it as an entirely aesthetic personal choice), and have neither respect nor obedience to spiritual authority. They are extreme personalists, who believe that each magician has to not only interpret traditional symbols in an individual way (the way the “new schoolers” do), but have to create their own entirely new, entirely personal set of symbols, or incorporate modern symbols and concepts into their magical practice. Confusingly, many chaos magicians would also identify themselves as Thelemites and express admiration for Aleister Crowley (unsurprisingly, since many of them started as “new school” magicians, and then jumped over to the Chaos Magick current). They just don’t believe that you need to use any of the old methods to do magick.
These guys can be characterized for a love of creating spontaneous rituals, breaking the rules for rules-breaking’s sake, using lots of “sigil magick” where they create some new word (sometimes out of the letters of whatever concept they’re trying to invoke) or image (again, out of the general imagery of what they’re trying to invoke) and then using that as a focus for their will (by varied means, anything from masturbation (over the sigil) to mass-production (of the sigil, making it seen in a whole lot of places or by a whole lot of people)), and going out of their way to try to mingle talk about modern quantum physics, chaos mathematics, or other cutting-edge legitimate sciences with their personal occult theory.
This is the guy, in other words, who will use lots of quasi-scientific words to try to convince you that the Uncertainty Principle or String Theory “Proves” that magick is real. They see the “new school” guys as “old farts” and the “Old school” guys as utterly hopeless.
The general criticism that more traditional magicians have for fans of “chaos magick” is that they’re not basically doing anything, they’re just making it up as they go along; I’ve even literally heard one “new school” Thelemic magician accuse chaos magick of being “barely a step above D&D on the scale of credible occultism”.
Critics will point to the absurdity of the fact that Chaos magicians believe that symbols are only powerful due to the personal impact they have for you in your personal history and experience (rather than the more standard occult theory that symbols are powerful because of an objective connection to the collective unconscious, the kabbalistic tree of life, or the divine supersoul). The chaos magicians, feeling that all that matters is one’s own personal whims, will argue that it makes more sense to “invoke Superman” in a magical ritual rather than Zeus, evoke the Cthulhu monsters from Lovecraft novels rather than the demons of the goetia, or will use pseudolatin words from Harry Potter rather than the Ineffable Names or the Enochian Calls. More traditional magicians will take this to mean that not only do most chaos magicians not know what they’re doing, they don’t even believe in what they’re doing, they’re just playing at being pop-culture post-modern wizards; an accusation that might be true for a significant number of chaos magicians, but then again, similar accusations of “playing at being crowley” or “playing at collecting absurd titles” can be levied at the majority of Thelemites and the Golden-dawn old-schoolers.
Like the other two above, the majority of chaos magicians are much more “theory” (or one should say “talk”, in their case, since they intentionally don’t have a coherent theory) than practice.
I think Alan Moore perhaps put it best in his incredible occult-comic Promethea; “You know, in the 20s, magicians had style; it was turbans, tuxedos, and tarts in tiaras; now its all sigils, stubble and self-abuse”. Of course Grant Morrison, a practicing chaos magician and writer of the even-more incredible The Invisibles, responded by calling Moore’s treatment of magick in Promethea “elitist”.
Curiously, the thing worth noting is that the really great magicians of any of these three predominant types will all end up looking very similar; its the posers that tend to look different from one another. The hardcore guys who have developed a serious magical practice, regardless of what outer “school of thought” they belong to, will all have engaged in obsessive study of ALL kinds of sources, near-neurotic levels of daily practices, will demonstrate a notable ability to improvise and adapt their magick to the situation at hand, and will all have gone through similar experiences though perhaps via different methods. In other words, they’ll all be batshit crazy, AND have something real going on; and so will a real tantrist, or a real shaman, or a real voodoo witch doctor or a real Taoist alchemist. They all end up looking very similar at the high end of the “attainment” spectrum, and if that’s not a good argument in favour of the Philosophia Perennia, I don’t know what is.
Now, a note about magical orders: there aren’t really any truly “vast occult conspiracies” out there. That’s because any order that becomes truly big, and there are precious few of these too, will inevitably end up becoming much more social and less “occult”. That’s not to say they won’t have plenty of serious magicians in these groups, but those serious magicians will not be seeing their membership in the group as the central part of their magical work, only as a compliment or a social outlet. The largest “occult order” in the western world is undoubtedly Freemasonry, which at the present time boasts about six million members worldwide. That sounds like a lot but you have to remember that its spread over a shitload of countries, there’s no central “worldwide” masonic institution, and the VAST majority of its members would not define themselves as “occultists” at all, much less magicians, even though what they do in their lodges and rituals is entirely a part of the western magical tradition.
As far as “serious” magical orders go (that is to say, orders that define themselves as “MAGICAL” Orders), they’re freaking tiny by comparison. One of the largest of these is one of Crowley’s orders, the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, and its splintered into about a dozen different rival factions; the largest of these has about 3000 members worldwide, and none of the others get anywhere near that number. The smallest “OTO” claimant group I’ve run into personally had a whopping TWO members!
The “old school” order par excellence was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which were absolutely revolutionary in their development of ritual magick in the late 19th century; the original Golden Dawn (of which Crowley was a member in his youth, and which included luminaries of multiple backgrounds, people like W.B. Yeats, A.E. Waite of the “Rider Waite Tarot” fame, Bram “Dracula” Stoker, Allan “first western Buddhist Monk” Bennett, and many, many more) broke up due to infighting around 1901; after that there have been dozens of groups claiming to be the “one true” Golden Dawn (in the same way that there are dozens of “one true” OTOs out there). These days none of these groups are very big; and they generally take the form of mail-order correspondence-course groups that send you instructional material and give you a fancy “degree” as you pass written exams; the better ones actually have some type of headquarter where you go for initiations. The entirety of the original Golden Dawn’s secret rituals are available in print (and online), and many “old school” magicians practice or study that ritual on their own, rather than in a group.
There are two major and a host of minor “Thelemic” groups, the aforementioned OTO being the biggest; like the Golden Dawn it works with a pseudo-masonic “Lodge” structure and offers initiations. Its membership has been suffering a decline since around the late 1980s, however, and there are far fewer working OTO lodges than there used to be. The quality of these groups vary immensely, from being largely social groups that engage in a lot of magical “conversation”, to individual lodges that do very serious magical work alongside the standard ritual. The other major Thelemic group is the A.’.A.’., which Crowley founded. It does not follow the “lodge structure”, but rather works (in theory) on a “cell” basis, where each member only knows his immediate superior in the order (the guy who’s teaching him magick) and those lower-degree members that the person themselves has brought into the order.
This means that basically, since Crowley’s death, there has been no true central structure of the A.’.A.’., and there are shitloads of people who spontaneously claim to have membership in this group; theoretically, the “real” A.’.A.’. is anyone who has an unbroken “lineage” going back to Crowley himself (that is, he was brought into the A.’.A.’. by someone who was brought into the A.’.A.’. by someone who was brought into the A.’.A.’., by someone etc. etc. who was brought into the A.’.A.’. by Crowley); but this is in practice notoriously difficult to accurately confirm. Fortunately in both cases, just like with the Golden Dawn, the entire OTO rituals and A.’.A.’. magical writings are available in print or online if you know where to look, though the legal heirs of Crowley’s OTO try to suppress this material whenever they find it.
The “Really New School” guys tend mostly to be solitary or work in small groups, but there’s one kind-of “major” group, the Illuminates of Thanateros, who were founded by the guy who first coined the term Chaos Magick (Peter Carroll). This group is, true to chaos magick format, pretty loosey-goosey compared to the other orders I’ve mentioned.
So magical orders tend to be kind of shite, which tends to put the damper on some of the traditional setting-concepts of occult campaigns; but is more in keeping with the far more “realistic” setting elements of isolation and infighting that I’ve been trying to emphasize as being part of an accurate portrayal of the occult scene.
And in any case, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have “secret groups” being a significant part of an occult campaign; remember that there’s probably literally hundreds of very small “orders”, often incredibly pretentious in spite of their size, which can run the gamut from con artists to cults of personality, to a group of people who have tapped into some seriously Powerful (and Possibly Fucked Up) Heavy Shit. While the majority of magicians actually work alone, or through small or medium-sized networks of like-minded acquaintances, there’s also thousands of “working groups” that don’t go so far as to call themselves an “order”, who are also often the groups that do some of the most serious magical group work. The PC party can be one of these, for that matter.
Currently Smoking: Mario Grandi Oom Paul + Argento Latakia
(originally reposted June 16th, 2013, on the old blog)