THE LITERATURE OF CEREMONIAL MAGIC
The Antiquity of Magical Rituals
The Importance of Ceremonial Magic
THE ordinary fields of psychological inquiry, largely in possession of the pathologist, are fringed by a borderland of occult and dubious experiment into which pathologists may occasionally venture, but it is left for the most part to unchartered explorers. Beyond these fields and this borderland there lies the legendary wonder-world of Theurgy, so called, of Magic and Sorcery, a world of fascination or terror, as the mind which regards it is tempered, but in either case the antithesis of admitted possibility. There all paradoxes seem to obtain actually, contradictions coexist logically, the effect is greater than the cause and the shadow more than the substance. Therein the visible melts into the unseen, the invisible is manifested openly, motion from place to place is accomplished without traversing the intervening distance, matter passes through matter. There two straight lines may enclose a space; space has a fourth dimension, and untrodden fields beyond it; without metaphor and without evasion, the circle is mathematically squared. There life is prolonged, youth renewed, physical immortality secured. There earth becomes gold, and gold earth. There words and wishes possess creative power, thoughts are things, desire realises its object. There, also, the dead live and the hierarchies of extra-mundane intelligence are within easy communication, and become ministers or tormentors, guides or destroyers, of man. There the Law of Continuity is suspended by the interference of the higher Law of Fantasia.
But, unhappily, this domain of enchantment is in all respects comparable to the gold of Faerie, which is presumably its medium of exchange. It cannot withstand daylight, the test of the human eye, or the scale of reason. When these are applied, its paradox becomes an anticlimax, its antithesis ludicrous; its contradictions are without genius; its mathematical marvels end in a verbal quibble; its elixirs fail even as purges; its transmutations do not need exposure at the assayer’s hands; its marvel-working words prove barbarous mutilations of dead languages, and are impotent from the moment that they are understood; departed friends, and even planetary intelligences, must not be seized by the skirts, for they are apt to desert their draperies, and these are not like the mantle of Elijah.
The little contrast here instituted will serve to exhibit that there are at least two points of view regarding Magic and its mysteries–the simple and homogeneous view, prevailing within a charmed circle among the few survivals whom reason has not hindered from entering, and that of the world without, which is more complex, more composite, but sometimes more reasonable only by imputation. There is also a third view, in which legend is checked by legend and wonder substituted for wonder. Here it is not the Law of Continuity persisting in its formulae despite the Law of Fantasia; it is Croquemetaine explained by Diabolus, the runes of Elf-land read with the interpretation of Infernus; it is the Law of Bell and Candle, the Law of Exorcism, and its final expression is in the terms of the auto-da-fé. For this view the wonder-world exists without any question, except that of the Holy Tribunal; it is not what it seems, but is adjustable to the eye of faith in the light from the Lamp of the Sanctuaries; in a word, its angels are demons, its Melusines stryges, its phantoms vampires, its spells and mysteries the Black Science. Here Magic itself rises up and responds that there is a Black and a White Art, an Art of Hermes and an Art of Canidia, a Science of the Height and a Science of the Abyss, of Metatron and Belial. In this manner a fourth point of view emerges; they are all, however, illusive; there is the positive illusion of the legend, affirmed by the remaining adherents of its literal sense, and the negative illusion which denies the legend crassly without considering that there is a possibility behind it; there is the illusion which accounts for the legend by an opposite hypothesis, and the illusion of the legend which reaffirms itself with a distinction. When these have been disposed of, there remain two really important questions–the question of the Mystics and the question of history and literature. To a very large extent the first is closed to discussion, because the considerations which it involves cannot be presented with profit on either side in the public assemblies of the reading world. So far as may be held possible, it has been dealt with already. As regards the second, it is the large concern and purpose of this inquiry, and the limits of its importance may therefore be stated shortly.
There can be no extensive literatures without motives proportionate to account for them. If we take the magical literature of Western Europe from the Middle Ages and onward, we shall find that it is moderately large. Now, the acting principles in the creation of that literature will prove to rule also in its history; what is obscure in the one may be understood by help of the other; each reacted upon each; as the literature grew, it helped to make the history, and the new history was so much additional material for further literature.
There were, of course, many motive principles at work, for the literature and history of Magic are alike exceedingly intricate, and there are many interpretations of principles which are apt to be confused with the principles, as, for example, the influence of what is loosely called superstition upon ignorance; these and any interpretations must be ruled out of an inquiry like the present. The main principles are summed in the conception of a number of assumed mysterious forces in the universe which could be put in operation by man, or at least followed in their secret processes. In the ultimate, however, they could all be rendered secondary, if not passive, to the will of man; for even in astrology, which was the discernment of forces regarded as peculiarly fatal, there was an art of ruling, and sapiens dominabitur astris became an axiom of the science. This conception culminated or centred in the doctrine of unseen, intelligent powers, with whom it was possible for prepared persons to communicate; the methods by which this communication was attempted are the most important processes of Magic, and the books which embody these methods, called Ceremonial Magic, are the most important part of the literature. Here, that is to say, is the only branch of the subject which it is necessary to understand in order to understand the history. Had Magic been focussed in the reading of the stars, it would have possessed no history to speak of, for astrology involved intellectual equipments which, comparatively speaking, were possible only to the few. Had Magic centred in the transmutation of metals, it would never have moved multitudes, but would have remained what that still is, the quixotic hope which emerges at a far distance from the science of chemistry. We may take the remaining occult sciences collectively, but there is nothing in them of themselves which would make history. In virtue of the synthetic doctrine which has been already formulated, they were all magically possible, but they were all subsidiary to that which was head and crown of all–the art of dealing with spirits. The presumed possession of the secret of this art made Magic formidable, and made therefore its history. There was a time indeed when Ceremonial Magic threatened to absorb the whole circle of the occult sciences; it was the superior method, the royal road; it effected immediately what the others accomplished laboriously, after a long time. It had, moreover, the palmary recommendation that it was a conventional art, working by definite formulæ; above all, it was a process in words.
It was the fascination of this process which brought men and women-all sorts and conditions of both–to the Black Sabbath and to the White Sabbath, and blinded them to the danger of the stake. It was the full and clear acceptation of this process as effectual by Church and State which kindled the faggots for the magician in every Christian land. Astrology was scarcely discouraged, and if the alchemist were occasionally tortured, it was only to extract his secret. There was no danger in these things, and hence there was no judgment against them, except by imputation from their company; but Magic, but dealing with spirits, was that which made even the peasant tremble, and when the peasant shakes at his hearth, the king is not secure in his palace nor the Pope at St. Peter’s, unless both can protect their own. Moreover, in the very claim of Ceremonial Magic there was an implied competition with the essential claim of the Church.
The importance of Ceremonial Magic, and of the literature which embodies it, to the history of the occult sciences being admitted, there is no need to argue that this history is a legitimate and reasonable study; in such a case, knowledge is its own end, and there can be certainly no question as to the distinguished influence which has been exercised by the belief in Magic throughout the ages. In order, however, to understand the literature of Magic, it is necessary to obtain first of all a clear principle of regarding it. It will be superfluous to say that we must surrender the legends, as such, to those who work in legends, and dispute about their essential value. We need not debate whether Magic, for example, can really square the circle, as magicians testify, or whether such an operation is impossible even to Magic, as commonly would be objected by those who deny the art. We need not seriously discuss the proposition that the devil assists the magicians to perform a mathematical impossibility, or its qualified form, that the circle can be squared indifferently by those who invoke the angel Cassiel of the hierarchy of Uriel and those who invoke Astaroth. We shall see very shortly, as already indicated in the preface, that we are dealing with a bizarre literature, which passes, by various fantastic phases, through all folly into crime. We have to account for these characteristics.
The desire to communicate with spirits is older than history; it connects with ineradicable principles in human nature, which have been discussed too often for it to be necessary to recite them here; and the attempts to satisfy that desire have usually taken a shape which does gross outrage to reason. Between the most ancient processes, such as those of Chaldean Magic, and the rites of the Middle Ages, there are marked correspondences, and there is something of common doctrine, as distinct from intention, in which identity would more or less obtain, underlying them both. The doctrine of compulsion, or the power which both forms pretended to exercise even upon superior spirits by the use of certain words, is a case in point. In approaching the Ceremonial Magic of the Middle Ages, we must therefore bear in mind that we are dealing with a literature which, though modern in its actual presentation, embodies some elements of great antiquity. 1 It is doubtful whether the presence of these elements can be accounted for on the principle that mankind in all ages works unconsciously for the accomplishment of similar intentions in an analogous way; a bizarre intention, of course, tends independently to be fulfilled in a bizarre manner, but in this case the similarity is so close that it is more easily explained by the perpetuation–sporadic and natural or concerted and artificial–of an antique tradition, for which channels could be readily assigned. There is one upon the face of the literature, and that is the vehicle of Kabalistic symbolism, though it cannot be held to cover the entire distance in time.
There have been two ways of regarding the large and imperfectly explored literature which embodies the Kabalah of the Jews, and these in turn will give two methods of accounting for the spurious and grotesque processes which enter so extensively into Ceremonial Magic. It is treated either as a barren mystification, a collection of supremely absurd treatises, in which obscure nonsense is enunciated with preternatural solemnity, or it is regarded as a body of theosophy, written chiefly in the form of symbolism. The first view is that which is formed, I suppose, almost irresistibly upon a superficial acquaintance, and there is not any need to add that it is the one which obtains generally in derived judgments, for here, as in other cases, the second-hand opinion issues from the most available source. It is just to add that it does not differ very seriously from the opinions expressed in the past by a certain section of scholarship. The alternative judgment is that which prevails among those students of the literature who have approached it with a certain preparation through acquaintance with other channels of the Secret Tradition. From the one it would follow that the Ceremonial Magic which at a long distance draws from the Kabalah, reproduces its absurdities, possibly with further exaggerations, or it is the subject-matter of the literature carried to its final results. Two erroneous views have issued from the other–an exaggerated importance attributed to the processes in question on the ground of their exalted connections, and–this, however, is rarely met with–an inclination to regard them also as symbolical writing.
There is no ground for the criticism of the first inference, which has arisen legitimately enough and is that which will be most acceptable to the majority of readers. Those who value Kabalistic literature as a storehouse of symbolism, the inner sense of which is or may be of importance, but see nothing in the processes of Ceremonial Magic to make them momentous in their literal sense or susceptible to interpretation, will be tempted to dismiss them as mediæval and later impostures, which must be carefully distinguished from the true symbolical tradition. In either case the ceremonial literature is disdainfully rejected, and it follows in this manner that alternatives which exclude one another both reach the truth as their term.
There is, however, yet another point of view, and it is of some moment, as it connects with that question of the Instituted Mysteries about which it has been already observed that very little has transpired. Most students of occultism are acquainted with intimations and rumours of the existence in modern times of more than one Occult as of more than one Mystical Fraternity, deriving, or believed to derive, from other associations of the past. There are, of course, many unaffiliated occultists, as most mystics are unaffiliated, but the secret Fraternities exist, and the keys of occult symbolism are said to be in their possession. From a variety of isolated statements scattered up and down the works of professed Occultists in recent years, it is possible to summarise broadly the imputed standpoint of these bodies in respect of Ceremonial Magic. I will express it in brief as follows. There is no extant Ritual, as there is no doctrine, which contains, or can possibly contain, the real secret of magical procedure or the essence of occult doctrine. The reason–whatever may be said in the excess of some self-constituted exponents–is not because there is, or can be, any indicible process, but because the knowledge in question is in the custody of those who have taken effectual measures for its protection; and though, from time to time, some secrets of initiation, belonging to this order, have filtered through printed books into the world at large, the real mysteries have never escaped. The literature of Magic falls, therefore, on this hypothesis, under three heads: (a.) The work of putative adepts, stating as much as could be stated outside the circle of initiation, and primarily designed to attract those who might be ripe for entrance. (b.) The speculations of independent seekers, who, by thought, study and intuition, sometimes attained veridic results without assistance. (c.) Travesties of occult doctrine, travesties of occult intention, travesties of occult procedure, complicated by filtrations from the superior source.
The opinions of professed occultists on any subject whatsoever are of no importance to myself, and are named only to establish a point of view; but most Ceremonial Magic belongs to the third class, on the assumption that it still exists, like some other paths of Satanism; the first, by its nature, is not represented, and the second only slightly. In a word, Ceremonial Magic reflects mainly the egregious ambitions and incorporates the mad processes of mediæval sorcery–of the Sabbath above all. The additional elements are debased applications of various Kabalistic methods, seering processes current among country people and fantastic attempts to reduce magical legends to a formal practice.
Whichever of the above views the reader may prefer to adopt, it will be seen that the net result as regards the Rituals is not generically different, that they are of literary and historical interest, but nothing further. For the occultist they will possess, from their associations, an importance which will be of no moment to another student. It is desirable that they should not be undervalued, as records of the past, because they have exercised an influence, and they are memorable as curiosities thereof; but it is more desirable still that the weak and credulous should be warned against acting like fools, and that those who are seeking spiritual certitude should be dissuaded from the science of the abyss.