In Loco Dei: Pathology in Western Magic

Posted on October 30, 2008
Filed Under deity, identity, Magic, occult culture, Vince Stevens, writing | 2 Comments

By Vince Stevens

In dealing with Modern Western Magic, I and those I work with often find consistent patterns of pathology in Western Magical culture:

  • Tendencies to arrogance and self-obsession among magicians.
  • An inordinate focus on rebellion, rebelliousness, and distance from the dominant – or any culture.
  • An unusual distance from people, processes, nature, and the world at large – a distinct sense of separation.  Magic is push-button, and people, cultures, nature, and even magic are seen as something mechanical, easily boiled down to a fw traits.

These pathologies often trouble I and those I work with in magic.  As magical pratcitioners, as much as we enjoy the activity, the pathologies in Western Magical culture prevent barriers.  Simply, when one joins a group, a list, go to an event, you worry you’re going to run into what are lovingly called “the nuts” (and less lovingly called many other things.

I find no reason to think these pathologies are universal to magical and mystical practitioners.  A quick examination of practitioners of magical arts and their legends in different cultures reveals a variety of different kinds of personalities, virtues, vices, and practices.  One can find alchohol-fueled shamans, serene Buddist monks with occult abilities, compassionate Taoist sage-Immortals, and more.  There is no reason to assume the pathologies of Western Magic are universal to magical practitioners, or even have any particular utility.

Looking at these pathologies, I felt they would be best addressed.  So in my small effort to make a contribution to understanding these issues, I decided to ask – just where did these pathologies come from?  Perhaps by understanding these issues, I could do some good.

So, I started at the top.

ARROGANCE: The Christian God.

Christianity was the dominant religion of the West for centuries, and is an odd religion in many ways.  It proposes an omnipotent and omniscient deity of ultimate power that still possesses identifiable human traits of anger, love, and so forth.  Its central deity, despite his great power, allows evil and suffering to exist due to a rebellious minion, later explained as an issue of free will – which one would figure that an omnipotent being could deal with such an issue.  Attempts had to be made to reconcile a rather cruel tribal (Old Testament) deity with a later loving deity, leaving one with a loving being manipulating a messed up world and eventually condoning eternal torment for people for what would be frankly trivial actions.

The Christian God was also a distant being.  His creation was a possession of his own, as were the sentients within it.  He would regularly send disasters, plagues, and so forth upon people and countries, theological weapons of mass destruction.  He had no connection to his creation except as something separate.

However, despite his confusing nature, the Christian God was considered the leader in all things, and thus in many ways, could be taken as a role model.  His commandments were to be obeyed (even if they seemed to benefit those relaying said commandments).  His world was law, and his confusing traits were to be explained as mysteries or by theological acrobatics.

Magical practices of these times were thus limited by the strange issues of this deity: early Western-Christian magic seems to have split between “Natural Science” magic that worked with perceived neutral or divine forces, and a kind of religious magic where one used (or misused) the name of the Christian God, rituals, and so forth to achieve certain ends.  One worked within creation – or stepped into the rather large shoes of the Deity to call angels, coerce demons, and so forth.  There were exceptions (such as the mystical meditations of Honorius and of course the Cabalists.), but such two-sided magic seemed to predominate.

One never left the sphere of control of the Omnipowerful Christian God, but one could act like him.  And in this, I think the seeds of the pathologies of Western Magic were planted (as well as frankly pure social problems).  The first role model was an incomprehensible, erratic tyrant.

Of course, tyrants produce rebels . . .

REBELLION: Shout at the Devil
Explaining the problems of the world in light of the hodge-podge of the Christian God proved rather difficult for people – a perfectly powerful, perfectly loving being was dealing with a supposedly imperfect creation.  Fortunately, theology provided a way with Satan, who can be thought of in many ways, but I think of him as a religious plot device.  A McGuffin with horns.

Satan is a figure somewhat less confusing than the Christian god, if only because he’s somewhat simpler: a rebellious servant who decided to do his own thing and was, essentially, a professional pain-in-the neck.  You could always blame Satan.

Accusations of Satan Worship were common in Europe for hundreds of years – different sects of Christianity naturally assumed other sects were in league with the devil.  Satan was everywhere you weren’t, and the explanation for all bad things.

Satan had two influences on Western Magic in my opinion:
1) First, Satan’s influence on popular culture at the time led to plenty of stories of Satanism – and of course Satanic magic.  Faust may have been popular, but similar tales of deals with the devil popped up all over.  The idea of the magician as in league with dark, rebellious forces easily worked its way into popular consciousness, and affected people’s expectations of magic.  Would-be magicians, frauds, novelists, and honest seekers were easily influenced – or were glad to influence others – with false grimoires and strange experiments.
2) Satan led to endless speculation, and of course, writing.  He was explored in Paradise lost.  He was written about.  He became a convenient dumping ground for people’s fears.  Of course, as the human mind can’t resist exploring, he was at times visualized as a hero, or turned into a counterforce to an evil false God with a nice injection of pseudo-Gnostic thought.  Perhaps the ultimate triumph of the idea of Satan were people who decided to actually go worship him, as others had been accused of doing.

However, Satan really wasn’t much of a role model, except perhaps for the bacchanalian rebellion he provided against straight-laced society.  He was childishly (and suicidally) rebellious, destructive and lashing out against creation, and in general, a jerk.  He was a mirror-image to the Christian God, and he lived up to it, adding only one new trait: rebellion.

Thus the Western Magician was caught between an arrogant and bizarre god, and a romanticized but destructive rebel.  Magic itself was part of a system that usually involved coercion of beings (and a helping of whatever old pre-Christian rituals could be adapted).

DISTANCE: Blinded by Science
As Western Society moved into its scientific age, a more enlightened time, the scientist took his well-deserved place in culture.  New discoveries, rational exploration, and intelligent thought became important to culture.  It’s no small feat to say science is something we owe much to in Western society.

However, science still grew up in the culture of the West, and it inherited some of the pathologies.  Science could justify tribalistic identity with “scientifically justified” racism.  Science was seen as liberating us from creation and controlling it – much as the deity had.

Science in Western society, for all its gains, postulated humans distant from creation, controlling it, dominating it.  Despite evolution’s reminder of our origins, people were still distant and controlling – just as the Christian God had been.  I will be fully straightforward in my biases – I think a lot of modern Western science hasn’t yet transcended its cultural biases.

Unfortunately those biases came from the Western Christian concepts – and people were still following in the footsteps of the Christian God (and in a few cases, Satan’s cloven hoofprints).

Science was in a way a boon to Western Magic – bringing in psychology, scientific metaphor, and cultural study.  I’d say in fact Western Magic greatly benefited from science.

However the distance rarely seemed to go away.  I’ve seen magic boiled down to pure, materialist psychology, fears of “scientificizing” or “psychologicizing” magic, and so on.  Magic, I think, has often suffered self-esteem issues in the West, and thus compensates not by doing its own thing, but by trying to be more like science.  There’s a point when if you start being something else, you stop being what you are.

Western Magic, though making many leaps in the last decades (or century), still has its pathologies as mentioned in the introduction: Arrogance, Rebellion, and Distance.  The role models of Western culture (acknowledged and not), leave us with these traits.

However acknowledging the past lets us cope with it – and magic is after all transformational.  By acknowleding that Western Magic hasn’t always had the best role models (and survived despite that), we can go about developing the future.