Aleister Crowley

Magic vs Magick

This is an article that was originally published in 2004 on Suite 101. In my Magical Experiments class, a question was asked about magic vs magick and one of the other people searched and the first result was this I decided to republish it on my blog. To me it illustrates how much can be read into the even spelling of a word. The other day, in my livejournal, I got into a discussion about the word magick and why people use it. It occurred to me that I had been using this word for a long time, so much so that it had become automatic for me to write the word magick, without even thinking about it. I suspect this is also the case with many other magicians who use this word. If we use a word automatically, without thinking about it, can we really appreciate it, or what it represents?

My argument here is basically this: A word such as magick is a word that is loaded with meaning and ideology. A person who automatically uses such a word without thinking about that ultimately doesn't appreciate or realize that s/he is representing more than just his or her own take on a word. Am I being pedantic? Perhaps, but then again how you use the language says a lot about your ideologies and what traditions or beliefs you hold valuable.

The urban legend about the word magick is that Aleister Crowley appended the k to magic as a way of differentiating it from the magic practiced by illusionists and stage magicians. However, in looking through his writing on the subject, I was unable to find any explicit reference by Crowley for the reason he chose to add k to magic. The closest I came to finding a reference to the matter is in the following quote: "I chose therefore the name 'MAGICK' as essentially the most sublime, and actually most discredited, of all the available terms. I swore to rehabilitate magick, to identify it with my own career; and to compel mankind to respect, love, and trust that which they scorned, hated, and feared" (Crowley, 1994, p. 127). Now Crowley clearly states a reason for choosing the word magick, but not a reason that justifies the spelling. This matter gets even more complex because many magicians, in fact, use magic, not magick, when talking about their beliefs or spiritual practices.

In the discussion that occurred on my livejournal as a result of my post, one person told me the following: "I'm so used to seeing scholars and other outsiders spell it "magic," and practitioners spell it "magick," that it looks like I'm pretending to be an outsider when I drop the k" (Ulbh-Livejournal Comment). The irony here is that its not just scholars or other outsiders who use the word magic, but also fellow magicians. What's equally fascinating to realize is that the majority of writers in the occult industry do not use magick, but do use magic. Why is this important?

To me, it suggests that the use of the word magick is associated with one specific ideology, in this case Thelema. This word is not necessarily associated with other pagan belief systems and in fact there is sometimes tension between the choice of using magick or magic: "What follows is unashamedly and perhaps blatantly about something which up till recently has always been called 'Magic' (Without the k please, Mr. Crowley!)" (Gray 1984, p. 9). As can be seen, despite the seeming lighthearted joke, there is in fact some tension between the choice of magick and magic. And one author's choice to use magic as opposed to magick is indicative of not just a choice in words, but also ideologies and the traditions that inform those ideologies.

Unfortunately I haven't found any other writing that suggests an overt disapproval of either word. At most what I find are different definitions of what magic is and why it's practiced. And I find two discourses, one discourse which promotes magick, and Aleister Crowley, and another discourse, which uses magic and seeks to distance itself from Crowley. Neither word is inherently wrong to use. I think what it really comes down to is personal choice. But it's also important to know the history of the word you use. Knowing that history allows each of us to make an informed choice. Further it allows us to understand our cultural and spiritual history, which is something we need to know. Such history is easily lost and without knowing why a word is used, you cannot really know the power behind that word or what that choice says about your beliefs and ideologies. You may think as well that using magick or magic says nothing about your beliefs and ideologies, but it does, because people will identify, correctly or incorrectly, the traditions and beliefs that you draw in your spiritual practices. This, again, is why it is important to know the word you use, as well as what it means to others.

When we know our cultural and spiritual heritage, we will also know much of what informs what we do today and why. The attitude that it doesn't matter why you do something or use a particular word is ultimately apathetic, suggesting as it does that you don't really care about what informs your beliefs. Knowing the why of a matter, the how it came to be, is essential to knowing what can be done by using a word, by representing yourself and potentially other people of your beliefs. I know, if nothing else, that for now I'll use use magic, if only to question why I previously used magick so automatically that I didn't think about it.

Latest Episode of Magical Experiments Radio is up

The Latest episode is now available to listen to...and we got a caller. This episode focused on exploring why certain personalities are so prevalent in the occult community, while others are not as well as how that fame can impact the evolution of magic. I'll be doing another episode in two weeks at 3pm PST time as a review of the Esoteric Book Convention, which I'll be going to next weekend.

Magic as a Social Practice

In a recent post, I asked what the purpose of magic is. In some follow up conversations I've had, it's been suggested that magic is a social practice. If so, then the question arises how contemporary practices of magic display such social practices. In another conversation I had, it was suggested that in a lot of contemporary occult culture there is a focus on out cooling each other, a focus as it were on image as opposed to something more substantial. We see this attempt to outcool each other in workings which are focused on sabotaging the institutions of mainstream culture. For example the attempt send a lovebomb to Fox News, as written about in Generation Hex is a good example of a focus on image as opposed to content. We have to ask if that magical working really did anything substantial...and given that Fox news seems to be still running and operating, I'm not certain that the lovebomb did anything substantial at all, other than create an image of doing something. If magic can function as a social practice, it must offer something more substantial than image and a practice more significant than attempting to prove who is more cool or who is more subversive to mainstream culture. Indeed, we need to ask how magic actually contributes to our culture. Are we engaged in a practice where we actively contribute to the culture around us? How does the practice of magic contribute to our culture? In what ways is magic as a social practice, a practice that enables change of some kind to occur?

In a discussion I had with Vince Stevens, he suggested that taking the path of the Taoist mystic who sought to educate people about his practices in order to help them live better lives might be a path to consider. I think this approach to magic can be useful in the sense that it asks us to consider what kind of information we are gtiving out as well as considering the effect that information will have on the people hwo choose to pursue it.

What I think magic as a social practice really comes down to is finding ways to re-package magic as it were. I got involved in life coaching because I wanted to be able to offer skills I'd learned as an occultist to people who might not feel comfortable with the magical aspects, but could still benefit from a repackaging of those concepts into something they could understand, without all the negative connotations included...because despite what Crowley wanted, in terms of rehabilitating magic, I don't perceive it as rehabilitated in the public's conception of it. For magic to become a social practice it has to be re-packaged...reconsidered, as well as looking at how it is used for the benefit of all as opposed to the benefit of just the practitioner or a small group of people that practitioner knows. I think that as the concepts of intention and will are explored in neuroscience and physics and psychology, and as professions such as life coaching and alternative healing become more prevalent there is a chance to apply magical skills to the community and to help people become more connected to each other. I think that if this is to be to successful, we ultimately have to ask what the purpose of magic is and what legacy we want leave to the people who follow us, as well as to this planet we live on.

Follow-up to my post about my disillusionment with the Occult Scene

I've been watching with some interest just how much traffic my post about my disillusionment with the occult scene has generated. It even got linked by Chas Clifton, a pagan blogger and academic. He summarized that post as, " Aleister Crowley's legacy still poses problems for occultists -- especially when they take Internet "life" as equivalent to a "scene." Unfortunately that summary misses the point of that post entirely. I can understand, however, why he might think this was an issue with Crowley's legacy (such as it is) given my previous posts about Crowley on this blog. However Crowley is just a symptom of the problem, albeit to my mind, one of the originating symptoms. My original issue with Crowley essentially boils down to this: If after seventy years since his death, Crowley still represents the pinnacle of occultism, then occultism as a discipline hasn't advanced at all, which then brings up the question as to why any of us even bother practicing magic at all, if all we're trying to do is emulate him. Mind you, I don't believe all of us are trying to emulate him, but my original issue with Crowley was spurred on by seeing this person talked about so much, with so very little attention seemingly given to other occult authors or other original perspectives that weren't necessarily overtly influenced by him, to the point that some of these occult authors are only, in recent times, being rediscovered (Franz Bardon particularly comes to mind, though I can think of a number of others).

But after re-reading some of Crowley's work, I came to realize that my issue with Crowley was just a symptom of a deeper problem. I could see that Crowley had some valid points to make, even if the end I felt that while what he wrote could be insightful, I still don't believe its as influential as some people would argue. Before I get into any arguments with people who disagree, I'll just accept that yes he obviously has a lot of influence on you and your practice of magic. However, in re-reading his work I still don't find it very illuminating or graceful or any of the other things you think about it (so let's agree to disagree about that).

But this brings me to the problem I now see Crowley as a symptom of. Crowley's image, his notoriety is to me symbolic of the problem I perceive with the occult scene. I honestly wonder if people would find his work as influential if he didn't also have that bad boy image that he has. In other words, I think that the image has overtaken the content. And given that there are no other occult authors that really have that kind of notoriety, a further question I find myself asking is, "If another occult author had that kind of notoriety, would people read his works in the same way...would the image influence how the content was perceived?" Now someone might say, "Hey it's not fair that you assume that Crowley's image influences my reading of his content." Yes it may not be fair, but it is a valid consideration to bear in mind. Does Crowley's image overtake, overshadow, and consequently influence how his work is read and/or practiced? Is Crowley the best role model of a magician that we have? Should he be a role model for us? But it doesn't end with Crowley. The problem here is how much is the occult scene invested in image opposed to content (and who decides what is image and what is content?)?

When I talk about the occult scene, I'm not just talking about Crowley and I'm certainly not just talking about the internet occult scene. The Zee list was an excellent example of what I considered to be part of this image problem I've talked about, because on the zee list what you really had occurring was a lot of chest beating and posturing over who was the uber occultist of them all. What didn't occur was a lot of sharing of ideas or experiments. Some of that occurred, but most of the time you had flame wars erupting...and to a lesser degree this also occurred on other e-lists. I can't say if it's occurred in recent times, because I'm not on any of the e-lists I used to be on. I stayed off them when I realized that any experiments or work I was going to do would probably be best shared with only a select group of people.

So dear reader, at this point, you might ask, "So why are you feeling disillusioned?" And my response: "Is occultism as a culture about image or content or is there a good balance for both?" I think of Generation Hex, the anthology edited by Jason Louv as an example of what I'm asking about. Because on one hand it represents a snapshot in the lives of certain people and their pursuit and practice of magic, and on the other hand it also represents a method for marketing the practice of magic as something cool people can do. It's a cultural text that offers us insight into why people decided magic was relevant to them as a practice and as way of connecting with other people, etc, but it's a statement of how magic could (should?) be perceived.

And then too my disillusionment about occultism comes down to: "What does doing all of this stuff really do for me? How is this really changing my life?" I have no doubt magic has changed my life and changed it for the better, but in considering questions such as those, I also consider the role of occultism as a culture and as a practice in my life. Is the practice of magic just a practice that allows people to connect socially or culturally? Is the practice of magic an elaborate social schema for interaction with certain types of people? Or is there more? I can point to my own experiments and say yes there has been more than just a connection on social or cultural level. But when I look at occultism as a whole, as a culture, I'm asking, what are we practicing magic for? What is the purpose for practicing magic? How does this practice benefit us as individuals, as a cultural group, or humanity, or the Earth, or the universe? What is the significance, if anything...or is it just image in the end?

And to be clear I'm not commenting on the practices of others or your choice to be influenced by Crowley or whatever else as a way of dismissing it. To quote a tried and true maxim of chaos magic, "Whatever works for you" I'm really commenting on all of this for myself, as a way of looking at how I situate my practice of magic into my life, and into my interactions with the occult community and culture. I'm seeking answers to my questions, because those answers will really shape the direction my spiritual path goes into, as well as how and if I continue to take part in the occult community. Posting it here is the opportunity to articulate my feelings and concerns, to get some distance from them, to come back with a different perspective down the line. What answers I get, which could come from commentary that others offer, still are answers I have to find on my own. I suppose you could my disillusionment my spiritual mid life crisis. It's not necessarily a dark night of the soul, but it certainly is something to me...and that's just fine, because it means something is happening.

Magic, Culture, Identity

Taylor's latest post helped codify a few things I'd been considering as well in the world of magical practice and the role of identity. As noted previously, a great deal of the influence on my magical and meditative practices are distinctly Eastern, mostly Taoist, Indian, Chinese and Buddhist.  Such practices also have far different identity-concepts for people with magical and mystical inclinations and skills.  The often-eccentric Taoist Immortal, a studious Chinese Fang-shih, an awakened Buddhist mediator, are different identities than the western magician.

Thus I've begun to wonder if the concepts of the Western Magician are not just different - is it possible they are too limited?  Do the identities provided in Western Magic limit who we are and what we can become, especially in an age where we have so much information at our finger tips:

A few factors and things I've thought of: * The aforementioned dominance of Crowley.  I of course consider him talented, but also over-rated, and a person who despite his many experiences, never actually seemed to grow much as a person.  He became very iconic - and perhaps having that icon was too limiting. * The ironic influence of Chaoism.  Chaoism's deconstructive bent was entirely necessary for magical and mystical practices to make any progress because one had to go back to the basics.  However ages later, it appears there's still far more deconstructing going on that constructing.  I feel the deconstructive vein in magic has gone too far, with systems being built up and torn down, but little being made for the long term. * The western role model for the magician.  The west's spiritual heritage is often anti-magical and extremely limited in it's acceptance of mystical experiences.  Thus western magic has an odd undercurrent of negativity running through it - the Faustian image, excessive Crowley, battling secret-societies, etc.  This self-limiting and subconciously negative view of magic is one I find very troublesome and suspect lies as a mild, constant poison in western culture. * The association of magic with rebellion in our culture.  Though understandable given the last item, rebellion is only useful in what comes out of it.  If the Revolution doesn't build something, then what's the point of it? * The rebellion aspect of magic also prevents it from being integrated socially - when you are considering yourself an "outsider" there's only so much one can do with society at large.  Most of history has practitioners of magic not as outsiders in the large, but part of society - even if the society kept them at a distance for obvious reason. * The dissociation of magic from other practices.  Being "a magician" is in a way really limiting - as our ideas of a magician are limiting.

Coming to the Western approach from a mix of being an outsider and an insider, I think our concepts of the magician need to change for magic to evolve and grow, embrace broader identities.  Maybe we need to be practitioners of magic while being more, where magician is part of a larger - but integrated - picture.

A Confession

I have a confession to make.  I'm not really a magician. I realized this the other day, when in the process of decluttering my house, I decided to take my Golden Dawn and Crowley books, as well as copy of Agrippa's Three Books of the Occult into Powells to trade them in for credit. I'd read the books and done the practices years ago, even re-read Book 4 by Crowley recently and the most profound thought I had was, "This is taking up a lot of space and gathering a lot of dust." So when I turned those books in, which could be considered classics of western occultism, I realized my focus about magic had changed. I realized I'd become someone who happens to do magic, and uses it when appropriate as opposed to being someone who is defined as a magician. Of course I still have plenty of occult books that, as far as I can tell, I probably won't get rid of. I've got my William G. Gray, my Franz Bardon, my Pascal Beverly Randolph, my various books on alchemy, Taoist practices etc...but I've also been gradually filling those bookshelves with books on NLP, communication techniques, semiotics, cultural studies, multimodality, Neuroscience, physics and other areas of interest that are relevant to my spiritual practice.

It's not even so much that I no longer have books by Crowley or the Golden Dawn that doesn't make me a magician. Those are just books. They don't confer status, beyond what meaning people read into them. It's the change in focus, the change in attitude, the realization that my spiritual path has grown to include a wider range of studies and interests than traditional ceremonial magic could offer. Instead of limiting myself to one particular paradigm for how life should be lived, I'm interested in discovering the variety of paradigms available and have been for a long time.

I explored the paradigm of Crowleyian and Golden Dawn Western Ceremonial magic a long time ago. I got stuff out of it, but I moved on to other paradigms of western ceremonial magic that I found more useful (and still do to this day). And I continued moving on, but when I reread Crowley and his fervent desire to rehabilitate magic, I realized I wasn't a magician, because the result of his attempted rehabilitation of magic hasn't even remotely occurred, and yet it seems that so many people still operate on that current. I'm just not one of them. I haven't been for a long, long time, so why continue pretending to be something I don't feel fits me?

I happen to practice magic, along with a lot of other practices. I think that works as a better descriptor of the place of magic in my life and the current I'm exploring.

Follow up Post to the time to Get over Crowley post

In her latest post on the Crowley movie, Psyche says: "Ellwood seemed pleased the movie received a terrible review because he hates Crowley...I hear this sentiment [She's quoting my post where I mention his claim to fame is publishing the GD rites and also his showmanship] a fair bit from people who have not actually read much Crowley and are therefore unfamiliar or unaware of the influence he’s had on magickal thought and practice - “hero-worship” rather misses the point."

In point of fact, I don't actually hate Crowley. I just don't think what he's put out there is nearly as impressive as other people seem to think it is. I'm actually quite familiar with Crowley's work, having read Gems From the Equinox, The Book of the Law, Book Four (Parts 1 - 4), Moonchild, Liber 777, Magick in Theory and Practice, and The Book of Lies. And even after reading all of that I'm just not as impressed as others are with his work (As is evidenced by my post where I showed the problems in his definition of magic). Do I think he has valuable things to say? Certainly. I also think he's been dead for a long time, and other people have written works that are equally as valuable but often ignored or not known about, because in Western ceremonial magic, the buck seems to stop at Crowley. A good example would be Pascal Beverly Randolph who's work, as I mentioned in my post about the movie review, was essentially plagiarized by Crowley with no reference back to his work (and yes I have heard actual Thelemites, and ex-Thelemites admit that this was the case).

I don't hate Crowley. What I do hate is the often uncritical acceptance of him, and unwillingness to look at other works by other authors. What I hate is how so much focus is put on Crowley and how he did so much for magic, and how much other people and their contributions have been ignored because OMG Crowley!!! There are some people who even try to emulate his practices and life as much as possible, instead of developing their own practices. And this is where, yes there is hero-worship. Some people get so focused on what Crowley did and how wonderful they think his writings are, etc, etc...and I begin to wonder if they have original thoughts of their own, or have done anything with their practice which isn't just an emulation of what Crowley did.

I know some people argue that Crowley defined magic and that no one can surpass his accomplishments, and that bothers me as well, because if seventies years after the death of someone, you haven't seen genuine progress in a discipline, or people haven't come along and offered something substantive that continues to push that discipline in new directions, then that discipline is dead. At that point, why bother doing anything new? And that's what I hate...that people venerate him to such a degree that the potential for genuine progress is that much lessened...because hey if so and so is such a bad ass magician, I'll never compare to him. They shouldn't be comparing themselves to him in the first place. What they should be doing is getting what they can out of his works and ALSO reading and practicing what others did, while also developing their own practices.

I think Crowley was a person much like anyone else who has his share of experiences and occult adventures. I think he had a lot of courage to write what he did in the era that he wrote in. I also think that he did some questionable practices, such as plagiarizing the work of others. And in the end, I think that while it's important to acknowledge that he's had some influence on Western magic, and continues to this very day, it's also time to start focusing on what others have done and written and learn from their works and experiences. Crowley was just one person, and unlike others I disagree that he's defined magic or set an unsurpassable record. He's offered a perspective on magic, but there are others. He did some impressive magical work, but if you're doing it right than so have you.

I don't hate Crowley. I just hate his influence. I hate that it discourages genuine progress. I hate that people are so wrapped in what he did that they can't look at his work in a balanced manner, and they don't look at the works of other people, because they think that nothing else that anyone wrote had value compared to Crowley. And they don't try to do anything on their own, because they don't think it has value, unless what they're doing is what Crowley did. And that's why it's time to get over the hero worship.