An interview with Lionel Snell
In My Years of Magical Thinking you locate your ideas by describing how they unfolded in your life. It was fascinating reading about your school years, could you tell us how they set the scene for you? I was especially interested to find out you went to Clifton College in Bristol. I think Norman O. Brown, whose radical take on Freud heavily influenced ’60s counterculture, was an old boy too, and I remember him saying his early years in Bristol (before the war) were influenced by the strong presence of the Theosophical Society in the city.
Yes Clifton. I got a scholarship plus a government grant that took me from my local village school in the Cotswolds to Clifton Preparatory School in Bristol when I was 11 years old. I hated it and was frightened: because it was boarding far from home, was in a city after living in deep country, and I felt like a poor country mouse.
But the teachers were always good about encouraging individual interests: I loved clockwork and the House Tutor let us explore the uncased works of a Patek Phillipe Grand Complication pocket watch that made a profound impression on me. My House Master recognized my interest in the paranormal and steered me towards W. James and Harry Price and J.W. Dunne. They were unfazed when I borrowed Abramelin from the Gloucestershire Public Library and had it for months at school, and for an English Prize I chose Eliphas Levi’s Transcendental Magic in the Rider hardback edition.
But the real Harry Potter moment for me was when I found escape from the bells and frenzy of boarding school in the lonely silence of the Science Library on the top floor of the Clifton College Science School. It was a newish extension, but it had wooden floors that creaked and a huge glass fronted bookcase full of antiquarian and even Arabic manuscript books on alchemy and magic. When I moved to the Upper School, I was able to take books home for the holidays and pored over Agrippa, Paracelsus etc. The biggest influence of all was Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella By D.P. Walker. I later bought my own copy. I discovered that E.J. Holmyard, the historian of alchemy, had been Head of Science at Clifton College and this was the collection he had bequeathed to the school. After I left, the librarian might have been prepared to sell the collection to me, because it was of little interest to the school. But they had just had it valued and realized in time that they were sitting on something very valuable, so they just sold off some of the Arabic material because it was the least likely to be read and valued by the pupils.
I have since been told that this willingness to foster individual interests meant that Cliftonians had a reputation for being rather more eccentric than typical public school types — though I cannot say I was aware of that myself. I knew the school was unusually good at encouraging music and, even though I was not myself musical I came away with a deep love of Messiaen organ music, some grand opera, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and a hunger for a sound that was only experienced later when Jimi Hendrix on his first tour performed at Cambridge YMCA.
I had not heard of Norman O. Brown, and wonder if there are any other interesting Old Cliftonians out there. I only seem to come across people like salesmen and lawyers.
Those who know your work perhaps associate you most with your ‘four cultures’ model of science, religion, art and magic. You mention that the origins of this perspective lay in encountering C.P. Snow’s work on the two cultures of science and the humanities. There’s an element here of attempting some kind of objectivity, valorising all aspects of human thought. And yet magic holds a special place here — you’ve said that the four cultures model is itself a ‘magical’ theory. Could you outline this theory for anyone not familiar with it, and discuss this odd (for the mainstream mind) convergence of ‘objectivity’ and ‘magic’?
C.P. Snow identified two cultures: Arts and Science. The terms caught on fast, being so universally recognisable. But then it became codified into two types — divergers versus convergers — and went out of fashion because, as ‘types’, it was so easily disproved by exception (for example, the divergent thinking needed for brilliant science, and the intense focus on detail and precision in much great art).
So here was a classification that was at the same time immediately recognisable and yet utterly falsifiable. That paradox suggested to me another example of different ways of thinking: if you see Arts / Science as two different orientations, then everyone gets your gist, but if presented as two distinct categories it becomes nonsense.
Meanwhile I had recognised other ‘cultures’, for example a religious culture — neither art nor science — where people were united in groups by shared beliefs and/or disciplines, and another opposing individualistic culture that was often denied but I recognised as ‘magical’. And I saw that these four cultures made more sense when understood as orientations, and not as categories. As categories they lead to endless debates — such as whether philosophy is an art or a science — but as orientations I found the four cultures a useful compass to find my way around human endeavour.
For example: let us begin with science as a category. The stereotypical scientist is a man, with spectacles, in a white coat, measuring very precise quantities into test tubes in a laboratory — everything in that picture says ‘science’. But if, instead of looking at what he is doing we ask why he is doing it, then we discover his orientation:
- He says: ‘There are a number of competing hypotheses and, by testing them with precise experiments, I am able to eliminate those that are false.’ I would say that is very scientific.
- Or he says: ‘I am determined to find the truth about this. The pursuit of truth is our highest endeavour.’ I would say he is being pretty religious.
- Or he says: ‘This field of research is still a mess of conflicting theories and dubious hypotheses, but I sense I can unveil some lovely unifying theory behind it all.’ I’d say he is being a bit artistic.
- Or he says: ‘I want to eliminate global starvation, and this research will help.’ Now I think that is pretty magical, because he is actually taking on something almost impossible and yet he might ‘succeed’. That is to say he might die with a justifiable feeling that his work has in some way helped reduce world hunger, even if other critics insist that it was a political disaster that simply led to new types of exploitation and corruption.
So my diagram of four cultures is about orientation, the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’. It is not about deciding whether a certain action is art or science so much as choosing a direction to take. If you separate out recyclables in your trash can because it is the right thing to do and you would not want to be seen doing otherwise, you are moving in a religious direction. If you do so because it will reduce landfill by a measurable amount, you are looking towards science. If you do so because it is a tidy way to reduce the ruin of the countryside, it is more artistic. But if you do it for self-improvement, or the love of Mother Earth, it is a more magical approach.
But how does this understanding help? Because if your approach seems magical and you are prepared to admit it, then you may find guidelines on how to develop that approach. You might salute Mother Earth in word or gesture as you empty the bin. You can begin an inner dialogue or look for omens that point the way forward. You can meditate on Her beauty or Her sorrow, and so on. (The same applies to the other cultures: from ‘doing the right thing’ you can go on to organising a local movement, educating children etc; from measuring landfill reduction you can go on to devising the most energy-efficient solutions; as an artist you might paint your bins in lovely colours to make it even more of a pleasure to use them properly, and so on).
Why does this matter? Because in the decades when I grew up there was little encouragement of recognition of the existence of a magical approach — it was dismissed as ‘cranky’ or ‘superstitious’ whereas in SSOTBME I argued that it was just as valid as the other orientations.
Forty plus years later there are now many more people who would agree with me, who recognise magical thinking as a valid human skill. But there is still a reduced majority who see it is a backward step, a panic reaction to a changing world or whatever. So I wrote My Years of Magical Thinking for those people, explaining how I personally came to respect magic as a valid orientation, a direction that you can take that will lead you to a magical experience of the world.
So is it an objective analysis? I would argue not, because it does not define distinct, measurable categories, but an orientation that must be subjectively experienced. That, to me, identifies it as a magical theory. Religion and Science require clear categories — for religion they should be exclusive (Catholic or Protestant, not both), for science they should be ‘well-defined’. But categories in Art are hurdles to be jumped over — ‘I don’t see my work as post-modern so much as a respectful critique of the modern.’
In magic the categories are fractal — every sphere on the cabalist’s Tree contains the whole tree, every element contains all the others, every zodiac sign contains a whole zodiac — just as even the northernmost town in the world will also have southern, eastern and western suburbs. That demonstrates the extent to which magical thinking is more about spatial orientation than logical classification — what is popularly known as ‘right-brain’ rather than ‘left-brain’ thinking. If I am lost in a town centre and say I am trying to reach the northern suburbs, my guide need not utter a single word, a pointed finger says all I need. But if the guide says: ‘The northern suburbs are, by definition, those parts of the city that are closer to the North Pole,’ then I have learnt a truth of no immediate practical use. Magic is about practical, largely subjective, outcomes.
This broad sense of ‘magic’ has some resonance for me with our projected ideas of very early human cultures, based on contemporary hunter-gatherers. People sometimes project ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’ back in time too far, lumping all pre-modern cultures together by contrast to our secularism. But when it comes to hunter-gatherers, their animistic spirituality has a very strong pragmatic orientation — and you realise that much of the loftiness of what we think of as ‘spirituality’ is an artefact of civilisation, its abstraction and remove from nature. You bring in a certain evolutionary argument about magic — that it processes complex information quickly, so has a pragmatic, heuristic value even though it’s not rigorous. Have you delved far into anthropology or ‘big history’ to refine your ideas?
No, I have not delved significantly into anthropology or even heard of ‘big history’. When I Google ‘big history’ it does sound fun.
But there is something quasi-anthropological about the way I distinguish magic and religion — two topics that some people would rather fuse together.
All people perform rituals that might seem curious to a total outsider, and some of these rituals are performed in a group, while others are more private. Examples of group rituals are church services, political voting, attending football matches, totem dances, graduation ceremonies, weddings, parties, etc. — where there is a strong element of group reinforcement. I see these as ‘religious’ in the sense that they serve to bring people together and tend to reinforce a sense of group identity or membership.
Examples of private rituals are the personal habits that make us comfortable — tarot reading, meditation, a cup of cocoa before bed, yoga, rehearsing a speech in front of a mirror — where there is a private act coupled with an intention to encourage a desired change or successful outcome. I see these as magical. Of course there is overlap, because one might join a yoga class in order to meet like-minded people, as much as to improve health or reduce tension, so it is not so much the actual action as the direction: towards group reinforcement or towards a chosen goal.
The problem (and in some ways also the strength) of anthropology for me is the need to wear the condom of objectivity — to get as close as possible to the subject but not to go native. On the contrary, when I compare my idea of magic with some folk tradition, I seek to identify empathetically as much as possible with the other. Some would argue that this is the path of delusion: you think you understand but are looking at it from a 21st century, or a white European, or an educated perspective. If the aim is to understand, then this colouration is indeed dubious. But if the aim is to sense and share feeling, then the difference is trivial. Because the emotional centres of the mammal brain lie much deeper than any cultural conditioning, and I am as close to any other human as my DNA is nearly identical. Having been brought up in deep country myself, I find it easiest to identify with other non-urban people, but this does not enable me to “explain” them in any useful anthropological manner.
Phil Hine rightly pointed out that my experience of magic is very European: that is why I do try to stick to European examples in my writing, rather than assume an understanding of other systems. But I would also be interested to hear from magicians of other contrasting cultures, to see what words they would prefer me to use, how differently they might express what I am trying to convey.
What do you make of the fate of homeopathy over the past few decades? Both as a phenomena in itself, and as a measure of our culture. I was never into it but found it interesting as occupying a strange space between the placebo effect, pseudoscience, and folk magic. Has the attempt to present it as science degraded its potential as magic? There seems to have been quite a strong kick-back against it in the past decade, as the web has both proliferated junk science and reduced our leeway for considering such subtle oddities.
I am not very much aware of the changing status of homeopathy, but would certainly agree that the attempt to present it as a science would degrade its potential as magic.
I have argued that homeopathy is magic: very good magic because it is widely available, widely endorsed and has sometimes proved highly effective. An homeopathic consultation requires a much more holistic analysis of the patient, lifestyle and psychological state, and so a healing current has already been launched, even before anything is prescribed.
But there has been an unfortunate fashion in scientism circles to use the word ‘magic’ negatively. Instead of the popular idea that ‘magic’ means terrific, the word is used as a label to suggest that it is bogus and ineffective. So, rather than embrace homeopathy’s magical effectiveness, practitioners tried to prove it was not magic but scientific by subjecting it to absurd conditions that bore little relation to any real life healing.
For example, a ‘double blind’ test. Who in real life would go to a doctor who prescribed drugs without knowing what they were? The double blind test is meant to bypass the placebo effect, but simply betrays ignorance of how the placebo effect actually works. Because it is not a question of whether the patient received a real drug or a placebo, but whether they thought they were receiving a real drug or a placebo. If the test group was given the real drug but a significant number of them assumed that they were getting the placebo, while the control group were given a placebo but most of them believed it was the real drug, then the test would be a charade.
It would be nice to hear some future patients refusing a treatment because it lacked sufficient magic!
I’ve heard of experiments showing the placebos can be as effective if people know they’re placebos.
This does not surprise me. I remember having a course of acupunture, and at some point a friend presented a strong scientific case that acupuncture only worked as a placebo. It did not stop the benefits I experienced.
People forget the extent that magic is built on experience, not just faith. Say some skeptic joker were to give you a very rare pre-tarot divinatory deck and you used it to get good readings for a few months. Then you were told that it was actually a bogus deck, newly invented to make a fool of occultists. Then it would not surprise me if it went on giving you good readings. After all, how can the joker be sure that he might not have tapped into ancient psychic currents when inventing his ‘fake’ deck?
In My Years of Magical Thinking I point out that double blind tests are flawed because they are based on a binary distinction where people either have the real medicine or a placebo. Instead the binary state should be expanded with two further continuous dimensions where one axis represents the patient’s level of belief that the medicine given is or is not a placebo, and the second axis represents the similar level of belief in the person providing the medicine. Their simple binary distinction reveals insufficient understanding of the placebo effect.
So is modern science showing that magic can work differently than we assume?
But what are we assuming here? Is it that magical effectiveness depends upon belief in its effectiveness?
In MYOMT I argue that Religious and Scientific belief is not the same as belief for Magic and Art. ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’ is a religious belief and it depends upon being backed by authority (e.g. the Bible and priests). ‘I believe that the Higgs Boson has almost certainly been identified’ is a scientific belief supported by evidence from CERN. But ‘I believe in equal rights for women’ is a magical belief that does not depend on authority or evidence (in fact it can be demonstrated to be false), but more on an act of will or choice on my part. Similarly it is a choice to believe in the reality of a play, novel or movie while enjoying the experience.
So the decision to believe in a particular medicine has as much to do with a personal act of will as it has to do with doctorial authority or scientific evidence. So to be told authoritatively that it is actually a placebo is not enough to make it totally ineffective.
It reminds me of anthropologists who argue that sympathetic accounts of indigenous traditions sometimes overestimate how seriously people take their own traditions (e.g. Rane Willerslev’s ‘Laughing at the Spirits‘). Belief may be necessary for magic, but maybe not necessarily serious belief.
That article reminds me of the experience of a group of anthropologists in East Africa (early 20th century, I think) who were studying a village when it was stricken with severe drought. The villagers got together and danced a rain dance ceremony, and very soon it rained. The anthropologists asked the villagers how their dance made it rain and the villagers were very amused that Europeans could believe that dancing would actually make rain happen. They saw the act as more of a custom, a sort of good manners: when the land is suffering you dance in sympathy. If you do it well, and the rain feels like coming, then it will. They did not share our superstitious trust in cause and effect.
It also reminds me of something Mircea Eliade relates — he was surprised at the way a group of shamans made fun of their own practice. The Trickster archetype is a key figure in magical theory, often to the disadvantage of the practitioner. In How to See Fairies I give the example of how I was never able to do tarot readings because I was too serious. I only learned how to do it by dropping the desire to channel good readings and using the tarot deck as a toy to make up stories for my baby boy.
Perhaps laughter belongs with your ‘magic’ orientation? Certainly it’s lacking in religion.
Austin Spare in The Book of Pleasure writes about the role of laughter in magic, and it is more than just the banishing role used by chaos magicians.
I think it was in The Name of The Rose when there was a furious debate about the fact that there is no mention of Jesus ever laughing, so it is a sin.
Yes, The Name of The Rose comes to mind in this context — laughter as this dark taboo in religion, containing great power against religion’s fusty dominance.
Could you discuss The Trickster more? I’ve had some edifying exchanges with Joel Biroco recently, my fascination with the figure of The Trickster somewhat pitted against his with the figure of The Magus. How do they relate, and how do they differ?
Of immediate relevance to your Trickster / Magus contrast is my essay ‘The Charlatan and the Magus’ (published in BLAST Your Way to Megabuck$…) where I discuss the fact that the tarot trumps, considered as an initiatory path, does not begin with the Priestess, Emperor or Hierophant, but with a street trickster (in the old decks) and a Fool.
Another theme of the essay is the way that trickery can lead to actual magic. I gave examples of fake psychics using tricks like cold reading etc. — the very people one might expect to be utterly skeptical about real clairvoyance — who discover that they are developing psychic powers. The acting ‘as if’ of Austin Spare, or ‘fake it till you make it’ school of magic.
If you do not know that essay, there is a very goodmore recent podcast discussion based on it at Weird Studies.
Another aspect of the Trickster is addressed in my book The Good The Bad The Funny. There I raise the issue in a different way by noting that human arguments tend to be heavily polarised along a Good / Bad, Us / Them axis, reflecting deeply ingrained God / Devil archetypes. So I ask what difference it might make if our religions had instead assumed a trinity of God Devil Trickster — as in some African and other religions? Might we think then in threes as naturally as we now think in twos?
When I suggest this, people tend to assume that I am arguing for adding a ‘dash of Trickster’ to enhance the God / Devil polarity. But in the book I insist that this is not so and that the proper image is of a horizontal (not vertical) equilateral triangle in which God, Devil and Trickster are exactly equal players — a true balanced trinity. In this scheme, people who deny the Trickster and see only black and white polarisation are themselves deceived at the mercy of the Trickster — like the way that the opposing extremes of Islam and alt-right Christianity are equally fanatical fundamentalists, sharing the same deities while imagining that they represent polar opposites.
In that book’s trinitarian scheme I give many examples of how third principles play a playful witty or cynical Mercurial role that aligns them with the Trickster archetype.
Thirdly: around the turn of the millennium I corresponded with and met George P. Hansen, author of The Trickster and the Paranormal. As a psychical researcher, he noted how supernatural phenomena often show typical trickster behaviours: for example the Loch Ness Monster hunters who might spend weeks searching the Loch with cameras, motion detectors sonar etc., and see absolutely nothing. Then the day they abandon the quest, pack it all up and leave, they experience an amazing visual sighting, but without any record to prove it!
A great example of the Trickster — bizarre magician, psychical researcher, charlatan, artist and eccentric — is Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels. Again, we corresponded when I wrote ‘The Charlatan and the Magus’, and he was part of my inspiration for that essay.
You once made a wonderful suggestion for retirement homes, for them to be based around hobbies and passions. People can spend their autumn years with others who share the interests which have enriched their lives, and the homes can act as sources of skill and wisdom in the community. I’ve not seen anything like that actually happen — the closest I’ve seen is retirements homes which are conjoined with nurseries, or where students live cheap in exchange for keeping the residents company. Nothing about pooling people with common interests. Have you ever seen this done? And would you like to retire in a home for magicians, or do you think there’d be too much in-fighting?
I’m very touched that you remember that essay, one that had little to do with my main occult / magical interests. But it was good to be reminded because it is now my turn, at 74, to be wondering about how and where to end my days.
The example I chose to put forward the idea came from visiting a steam railway preservation society where they had taken over an old station, a length of track, sidings, etc. and a number of retired steam locomotives. What struck me was the wonderful generation-spanning symbiosis where the children visiting with their parents were thrilled to see real big machines in operation while the expertise was provided by retired old-timers who used to work on these trains and welcomed an opportunity to apply their skills and teach younger generations. The place opened up at weekends, and that gave me the idea that one might build a retirement home around it, so that folks could actually live there and give it as much time as they wanted, while providing society with an ongoing recreation / education resource that anyone could visit. I described it as a ‘passion home’ as opposed to a ‘retirement home’ because it was built around a passionate interest rather than being just a place to grow old.
Now the good thing about that example is that the sheer physical demand and discipline of trains needing upkeep — and the ability to display them and provide a steam experience for visitors — provided a solid grounding or incentive to feed the passion. Another example I invented was a home for retired musicians who could play music together, hold small daytime concerts, teach music, also exercise their love of music by organising an occasional big fund-raising concert with invited celebrity musicians. Again, the discipline of looking after musical instruments and playing music helps to keep the passion rooted. A third suggestion was it might be a way to preserve a beautiful but crumbling old building: so that a whole variety of retired craftspeople could have a lovely place to live while offering their services to restore the masonry, the tapestries, the woodwork and the gardens etc while creating and maintaining a beautiful space for local families and tourists to visit for a day out.
So one problem of a passion home for magicians is that it would embrace a very broad spectrum of interests without an obvious core physicality or discipline to hold it together. If you narrowed it down to say, Thelemites, then you might ground it in a weekly Gnostic Mass, daily Liber Resh sun salutes and other rituals, so that it would become a full-blooded Thelemic college. Or it could be pagans of a shared culture — Northern, Classical, Celtic or whatever — maintaining seasonal rituals and observances to hold the structure together. I could see those working, despite the obvious problem that Thelemites, for example, often end up fighting among themselves and splitting up.
So why might it work? I suspect that a lot of the explosions in magical groups are powered by young people with great ideals but less experience of the need to compromise when living in harmony. So, by the time they reached retirement age, such magicians might have rubbed off their sharp corners and be better able to work together with just enough tension to maintain dynamism yet not burst apart. It would effectively be pagan monastery — a nice thought and yet a bit too narrow to accommodate a magician like myself who likes to explore further afield.
So what, in mid-seventies, are my wife and I looking for? We have looked at several retirement villages. In one I asked, ‘What sort of people come here?’, and the person showing us around thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, we don’t get many big business or finance people retiring here,’ and I felt attracted, although that was a very negative comment!
That brings up another idea I had about some people’s skill at creating what I called ‘a scene’. This was inspired by the Paris cafés that birthed artistic movements like dadaism and surrealism. My idea was that such places are not created by any dedicated artist, but more likely just someone with a genius for making an outstanding yet very individual meeting place, and this aesthetic draws in certain people who then birth an artistic or cultural egregore. The meeting place becomes a chalice or matrix in which a movement comes to be. So maybe something as poorly defined as ‘no big business types’ might indicate a sort of scene that attracts free-thinkers of many persuasions. That is the sort of retirement that I, as a magician, might enjoy.
I very much appreciated the link you provided — of retirement homes that provide free or cheap accommodation for a few young students on condition that they make a social contribution. Like my passion homes example, it links the elderly and the young in a potentially fruitful symbiosis — especially if the young people discover that they are getting just as much from the old ones as they are giving in their services.
The nearest I came to an idea like that was at a later date when a big, beautiful old institution building with grounds near where I lived in the Cotswolds was being converted into prestigious flats and maisonettes — the sort of lock-up-and-go places that wealthy yuppies could afford and would not need to waste their expensive time looking after. My idea was that these flats should include a number of smaller student-style appartments, but all would be rented at a premium rent. Then I would create a sort of internal LETS scheme, where every resident received a certain pro-rata number of tokens in return for their rent. Then, for example: a notice might appear in the foyer saying, ‘I have time to maintain this foyer, keeping it clean, polishing the wood and brass and watering the plants, and would be happy to do this if I was paid ten tokens a week.’ Another notice might offer a regular frozen meals service for people who do not have time to cook every day. Another might offer massages, and so on. The is idea that the wealthier people would be glad to pay tokens for such services instead of doing the work themselves, and a less wealthy person could pay off their rent with tokens and might even not need to pay any rent at all. Like that student / pensioner scheme it might be a way to build a community that bridged and integrated differences in income.
Have I ever seen something like a passion home in practice? A suggestion I would add now would be an eco-passion home, dedicated to self sufficiency, permaculture, off-grid power, etc. — and I am sure that things like that must be happening here and there. Generally the emphasis is likely to be on being green, rather than old, so that these places are probably for rather wealthy younger families or very early retirees. But it would make lot of sense to do something like that on the passion home principle. And I would like it!
You recently published your Abramelin Diaries, documenting your attempt at the notorious six-month ritual for contacting one’s Holy Guardian Angel. How have you found it, looking back over the years at such a significant operation?
I am going to cheat on this question.
My justification is that I have to a large extent already answered your question in the three postscripts I added to The Abramelin Diaries. So it might be of greater value to your interview if I shared some of my more recent thoughts that have emerged since publishing that diary. So, instead, I am going to speculate on the apparent current interest in Abramelin.
Someone described it to me as ‘the new ayahuasca’: if that was really the case, my Diaries should have sold like hot cakes, as a genuine record of an actual Abramelin retirement under realistic 20th century living conditions. Instead I see listed on Amazon a large number of editions of the original McGregor Mathers version of The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. That in itself is a good sign, that people are going back to the original.
But on the other hand that ‘original’ has been revealed by the researcher Georg Dehn to be an incomplete and significantly inaccurate version of earlier manuscripts that suggested a retirement lasting eighteen rather than six months. In my booklet Thoughts on Abramelin I argue that Dehn’s work certainly justifies the longer operation, but does not totally negate the 6 month version — because a substantial egregore has built up around the Mathers version that does give it its own degree of potency. I did that version and, although at the end I strongly felt that six months was not long enough, I certainly got a lot from the experience.
So what are people looking for when they buy the book? I suspect that many are looking for proof that magic is real. After all, that was what first struck me as a little schoolboy who struggled to believe in magic against a culture of rationalism: here was a grimoire that did not stretch credulity with weird ingredients or obscure alchemical terminology; one that did not promise instant results but required six solid months of preparation; and yet one that could be adapted to suit one’s religion and lifestyle. Abramelin seemed credible, as well as being powerful — so a good candidate for ‘proving that magic is real’.
Someone who reads my diary for such proof: what do they expect? Do they want remarkable stories of supernatural happenings? Demonic materializations and losses? Levitations? Or would they be content with unusual coincidences?
I did experience unusual coincidences, but they were mostly my own experience of synchronicities that strangely mirrored my subjective state, rather than sensational stories to share. I did feel my scalp tingle, but was never pushed over by invisible forces. It would be rather nice to be able to say that when I tried to enter my oratory I saw a ten foot writhing tentacled monster blocking my path and how I banished it. But what would that have to do with Abramelin? The book simply describes a daily routine to be performed for six months, and repeatedly warns against other forms of magic. So the essence of an Abramelin Diary is to be profoundly boring, and any notable happenings are actually lapses from discipline rather than achievements.
Discipline is the word, and that is how those six months tested this aspirant. From childhood I had found myself to be a vicious astral warrior: a Martial chart loaded in the Fire signs, brave and undaunted when faced with ghosts and malignant spirits. But I only have one debilitated planet in Earth — very much the Jungian ‘fourth function’. So demonic hosts would never have deterred my aspiration, they would rather have reinforced my efforts. Instead I faced constant battles with everyday physical reality, like struggling to get up in time, or to make my ritual equipment. The delaying Spirit of Saturn did enter my life, but not as a sense of foreboding so much as a surprise visit from a thin, swarthy man delivering coal and insisting that I stay to count every bag as it was emptied. The inertia of material reality was my real test and, forty two years, later I am still struggling with physical challenges. Other people might try Abramelin and be tormented by emotional problems, or intellectual doubts or spiritual forces — not me.
That was one point about the movie A Dark Song that I recognised as being most realistic: the woman aspirant kept complaining, ‘Why is nothing happening?’ That was her real test.
A more interesting question for me is not whether magic aspires to people’s notion of ‘real’, but whether it is of value. I certainly found Abramelin to be valuable, and it is still teaching me things forty years on. People who find my book Thundersqueak to be inspiring should know that it reflects many of the half-digested lessons I learned during those six months as I peeled myself apart. Lessons that I was supposed to learn in the last seven days of the operation seemed to spread over seven painful years that followed.
In my YouTube videos on the subject — and in my booklet Thoughts on Abramelin based on those videos — I illustrate the relationship between Abramelin and everyday life with an analogy. In everyday life one might buy a VW Polo as a sensible, everyday vehicle. Then one day you hear a rumour about someone with a Polo that does 180 mph (i.e. rumours about amazing magical powers), but you check in the drivers’ manual and you realize it must just be a myth. Then one day you get your hands on a much more esoteric book, the VW Polo Workshop Manual (i.e. you come across The Book of the Sacred Magic), and read about tricks to increase compression, adjust timing etc to make the Polo engine powerful enough to reach 180 mph (‘Wow! This book’s magic squares show that magic is real!’). But you also learn from the manual that there is no point in doing that until you have strengthened the clutch, the suspension and fitted high speed tyres (i.e. the need to spend at least six months strengthening yourself before you can use those magic squares). I also point out that it is easy to forget the first book of Abramelin about Abraham’s life story and all that he learned before he even obtained the magic (in other words, it is not advisable to even attempt a 180 mph VW Polo if you have never learned about high-speed driving).
So these are some things to be considered when planning to do Abramelin. How will you be tested? It will not be how you would like to be tested. Do you have fancy aspirations? Then read the published magical diaries and get real. In The Equinox, Crowley published his own diary under the name John StJohn. It was a much shorter magical retirement, but he describes himself in simple terms not as an exemplary sage but as: ‘a man with all his imperfections trying blindly, yet with all his force, to control the thoughts of his mind.’
That is just how I might describe my own Abramelin Diary.
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