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reading roundup: 19 September 2012

This post was delayed by my travels to New Orleans. Here’s what I was reading before I left!

I watched the paralympics closing ceremony (admittedly, to see my favorite band playing, won’t lie) and completely missed the druidic elements, so… a pleasant surprise! Some of the comments are illuminating as well, particularly the discussion about how much more well-accepted paganism is in England as opposed to the United States.

A very negative tone towards “superstition” but a very interesting phenomenon; the Thai army is looking to protect themselves against black magic and sorcery. So they are turning to amulets and talismans to do so.

This fascinating interview with Jack Haberstam (you may know him better by the name Judith) isn’t directly related to magic at first glance, but I think a lot of queer theory has a lot to say to modern magic. Since I am specifically interested in questions of queer & trans* magic, I’m always interested in the way that naming, being gendered, and self-identifying have powerful, magical components (isn’t one of the most common magical acts to pick your own magical name?).

A good, if dated, overview of “paganisms” and their relationship to each other. I’m much in favor of designating “paganisms” (or even “neopaganisms”) as an umbrella term over “paganism” as some monolith.

Why does anyone get into the practice of magic? Frater Barrabbas explores how we can enter into magical and esoteric research and practice with selfish motives and find more than we bargained for… when I first started exploring magic academically in 2007, I was exploring largely out of curiosity (and I admit, now with some embarrassment, I read a lot of cheesy, badly written ’90s books about Wicca because they were funny in an awkward, MST3K sort of way) but quickly found I was already doing magic and magical principles, once applied, started creeping in everywhere around me in every day life.

Gluten-Free Eating In New Orleans

One of the reasons the blog has been unattended to for the past few weeks is that my partner and I just returned from a research trip to New Orleans. She was in pursuit of questions of history, I was looking at voodoo and magic. As we are both gluten intolerant, the trip seemed initially like it was going to be a difficult one, but with a bit of luck (and googling) we stumbled upon some great places to eat between visiting places like the 1850s House and Voodoo Authentica. Though this blog isn’t dedicated to gluten-free eats, since it is my public internet space, I thought I’d do a favor to any gluten-free magicians and magical researchers looking to eat down in one of America’s most supernatural cities.

Have Breakfast (and lunch!) in the French Market at Meals From The Heart Cafe. With nearly everything on the menu gluten-free or gluten-free adaptable, and marked as such on their menues, these wonderful people will love to take care of you. Take a chair at the counter and enjoy breakfast in the form of gluten-free blueberry pancakes (some of the best I’ve ever had!), an omelette, or cheesy grits with gluten-free toast, and turkey sausage. Drink some of their delicious creole coffee or enjoy the cheapest bottle of water you’ll find in the city ($1 flat, and ice cold). If you’re in a lunch-y type mood, try one of the amazing salads, or the tilapia tacos in a gluten-free shell, ESPECIALLY recommended. Let them know you’re gluten-free and they’ll make sure you don’t accidentally order anything you can’t eat. They’ll offer you really helpful advice on where to go, what to see, and what to eat, if you ask nicely, as well. We ate there every morning and one afternoon, and by our last day got a free meal after filling out their meal card.

There’s some great salad lunches at Napoleon House. Let them know you can’t eat wheat and enjoy a tuna-avocado salad or a really good green salad with grilled chicken. And have a pimm’s cup, a delicious lemon and cucumber flavored cocktail.

If you’re up on Magazine Street, stop in Byblos and tell the waitstaff you can’t eat wheat. Try having an appetizer of hummus with fresh vegetables to dip, and enjoy an inexpensive dinner by ordering a mixed kebab plate for two. Don’t miss out on their grilled lamb and fish, both of which were amazing. There’s good people-watching in the front of the restaurant, as well, always a bonus!

Finish your shopping on Magazine Street by stopping at sucre, an amazing desserts shop that does amazing almond macarons & gelato. We ate 16 macarons from sucre by the time we were done in New Orleans! So much for self control, their interesting macaron flavors included blackberry and lemon, cafe ole, and peanut butter and jelly.

If you want a really great meal and can afford a slightly higher pricepoint, finish your trip with a stop at John Besh’s amazing restaurant Luke, in the Central Business District next to the Hilton hotel. If you plan on going at a busy time or day, consider making a reservation, though we walked in at 7PM on a Tuesday night and were seated without trouble. The waitstaff are very well-informed about food allergies, so tell them you can’t eat wheat, and be surprised and delighted by all the options available to you. Split a tomato salad appetizer made with goat cheese mousse, or try what my partner and I ate; fresh grilled fish with vegetables and potatoes, or an amazing charcuterie plate with 3 different kinds of sausages, the best roasted potatoes I’ve ever had, and 2 different dipping mustards.

We will return to your regularly-posted link round-ups and various research thoughts soon!

Reading Roundup: 10 September 2012

Sad news for esotericists everywhere as more esoteric scholars have passed away this past week, including Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, whose work featured in my Packet One research. His Introduction to Western Esotericism is one of the most concise texts that discusses the history of the modern esoteric movement that I know of.

Sufenas Virius Lupus, a queer, non-binary pagan talks about the intersection of paganism and queerness. He has even founded a specifically queer pagan practice devoted to Antonius. A lot of my recent readings come out of his very public voice, and I found his introduction to have a lot of similarities to religious studies stance.

Are pagans practicing “indigenous” traditions? Sufenas Virius Lupus has a good reason to say “no, not really” — and I agree. “Indigenous” is a loaded descriptor, and in many cases, trying to claim the “indigenous” label for a religious tradition is a move of legitimization, which ironically can be appropriating and erasing of the struggles of indigenous religious practitioners.

Raven Kaldera’s breakdown of what he calls “classic” (as defined by Eliade) and “core” (as defined by Harner) shamanism. As Kaldera is one of the loudest/most visible voices in the neo-pagan shamanistic circle, his definitions have a lot of currency. I do like the term “shamanic practitioner” as an alternative for “core shaman”.

Raven Kaldera also sets out to define why his “northern-tradition shamanism” isn’t reconstructed, indigenous, or heathenry, and distinguishes “shaman”, a spirit-worker who has been initiated by the Gods,  from a “shamanic practitioner” who uses certain techniques of spirit work. I disagree with some of his points about what are appropriate traditions to draw from and utilize but appreciate the clarity and candor of his vision about  his “wight-taught shamanism”, as well as his sensitivity to issues of appropriation and colonialism.

Speaking of Raven Kaldera, how about a response to the chapter on Agdistis in his book Hermaphrodeities? A really insightful historically-oriented critique of some of the presentation of myth cycles, as well as a critique on the use of “third gender” to lump all non-cis genders together that I agree with.

An American couple is traveling around the world for 3 years to get married as many places and ways as possible. Including, in their own words, by a Peruvian shaman. This is an interesting and rather odd instance of privilege; that these two affluent white Americans can roll up into any country and borrow and buy their way to a “culturally-flavored” wedding in 3 days kind of astounds me. I cannot travel around the world and have a marriage ceremony anywhere I feel like — if I tried, I might simply be refused, or I might be physically threatened, harassed, or arrested. Consuming culturally-specific rituals like dozens of marriage ceremonies illustrates a lot of curious attitudes towards the right of white Westerners to consume whatever rituals they want, wherever they want, regardless of whether they are practicing those rituals correctly or in context. It also reflects the interesting dynamic that by and large, white straight Westerners are permitted to do these things and implies an interesting relationship between indigenous cultures and the West in which indigenous people will facilitate this behavior (perhaps because of the money involved?)

Reading Roundup: 5 September 2012

Marvin Meyer, a scholar whose work I encountered last year & has deeply influenced my understanding of magic & religion, has recently passed away. The only work of his I’m particularly familiar with was an accidental find at a library booksale, Ancient Christian Magic.

Humanist pagans on the rise? If paganism isn’t about polytheism, what IS it about? Humanist pagans pose an issue for a lot of scholars of modern paganism.

This strange, rambling essay is about this author’s belief that esoteric beliefs fuels fanaticism, particularly racial fanaticism. His belief that the belief in a literal esoteric cosmology populated with spirits of any kind results in a delusional belief in conspiracies is… well, not particularly well-articulated here. Part of the larger, ongoing belief that “enlightened” people live in a disenchanted universe, and people who believe in an enchanted universe engage in “magical thinking” according to psychological boundaries and need help before they hurt someone. On the other hand, what might be seen as validating his argument is that in my own life there are people who have decided their (self-generated, clearly result-of-bad-choices) problems are all my fault because I’ve cursed them. And yet in many societies, an active belief in evil spirits and malicious magic-workers is an important part of constructing social boundaries and maintaining social control — are we to consign all such people as delusional? Spiritual healing in many communities is understood to stem from spiritual issues caused by interactions with non-physical but malicious entities impacting the physical body. Is it only insanity when white people in the West do it, or is the whole non-Western world actually deranged? Suffice to say, I have some issues with his premise.

This ancient charms are thought to have been a form of sympathetic magic to gain control over animals. If true, this might qualify this kind of magic  as one of the oldest in the books.

This is one of the more interesting discussions of “animism” I’ve seen recently. It gets at part of what is problematic about the schema of “animism” as a “worldview” which is neatly and categorically ordered into a hierarchy of spirits with discrete and universally agreed upon traits. I am reminded a bit of Karen McCarthy Brown’s discussion of the Lwa has having agreed-upon traits and definitions in a single community. You know who is speaking based on which traits the participants agrees they recognize, but should a performance feature traits not expected or fail to deliver traits come to be felt as familiar, markers of identity might shift if a spirit is otherwise positively identified. Likewise there seems to be an implication that there is a lot of fluidity about how spirits are understood, and people are content not to ask too many questions until something arises in which thinking about how spirits organize themselves, what rituals are efficacious for which purposes, and so on, become important.

Hmm. Do we forget that religious rituals and beliefs, when integrated into daily life, become invisible to us, the same way that we don’t put much thought into the deeper meaning of making dinner or brushing our teeth?

Animism apparently cannot be defined within modern terminology without applying to it a set of unquestioned assumptions that are the fundaments of modernity, and in whose matrix we necessarily operate as long as we assume that the question is one of determining the “correct” distinction between life and non-life, self and world. These assumptions are already manifest when it is described, in a seemingly neutral terms, as the belief of some cultures that nature is populated by spirits or souls. The very meaning these terms carry within modernity imply that such belief is at worst mistaken—that is, failing to account for how things really are—or at best symbolic representations of social relations projected onto a natural environment that is indifferent to them. When we use the term animism, we have thus already entered into the narrative structure and self-mythologies of modernity. And these narratives cannot but deny reality to what they construct as modernity’s other. Mobilizing the grounds would require that we question the very meaning of terms such as “belief,” “spirits,” ”souls,” “projection,” “fiction,” and even “life,” as well as the historical role they have played in Western modernity as part of a disciplinary system of divisions that organize a modern “reality principle,” ghettoizing modernity’s discontents as “fiction,” “aesthetics,” or “primitive animism.”

These incredibly dense notes on an exhibition about animism, challenging both animism as a category of interpretation and the worldview that leads to such a category, is… well, incredible. But dense. I spent 3 days chewing on the contents of these exhibition notes, trying to decide what to say about them. Challenging the worldview that creates a divide between “animism” and “rationalism”, otherizes animistic beliefs as “primitive” or “premodern” and pathologizes belief in an animated, aware universe that shapes us in return to being shaped by us,  the exhibition asks the question of what dismantling this division might mean for western society, art, psychology, and political engagement.

The exhibitation notes aren’t the only thing from the e-flux issue dedicated to animism worth a serious look. A lot of it isn’t in my fields of interest and can go over my head (I confess!) but it’s still a serious, rigorous collection, including scholars I’ve been told to keep an eye on, like Michael Taussig. You may see more of my notes on this issue of e-flux in days to come.

Reading Roundup: 16 August 2012

Is Obesity Actually a Taboo from a Magical Point of View? at Esoteric School of Shamanism and Magic Blog.

I sadly cannot find a link to the original post this referenced (it appears to have been deleted), but it argued that obesity is against pagan morals and values because it is harmful to the body and can kill you, and pagans shouldn’t die of preventable diseases. The reply is, apparently, more nuanced than the original, but trying to track down the reference to the “Navajo Beauty Way” led me down a curious and puzzling path of intersection between Native American traditions and their uses out of context by white Westerners. Still trying to get the pieces of this one together which rather distracted me from the original post. Another theme of the blog post, their “Rules of the Road”, seemed worth consideration with regards to ethics:

The magician judges the “goodness” or “badness” of his or her own acts, whether they are conscious or unconscious acts, on the basis of what the Universe reflects back on him or her. The same is true of judging others, entire communities, states, or nations.

How problematic this approach can be. It can be very comforting in some hands (who isn’t satisfied when somebody petty, selfish, & mean “gets it” when their own actions backfire on them?) and on the others it can lead to very strange, fallacious logic which blames victims for their own suffering (for example: “Voodoo is a violent belief system, that is why Haiti is poor & oppressed”, a sentiment really expressed to me this year).  But how are we to regard the ethics of our behavior, from where do we look for the sense that our ethical stances make sense? If we don’t believe in “Instant Karma”, how do we conceptualize “cosmic justice” that isn’t arbitrary, cruel, or more problematic than it is satisfying?

The Talmud’s Many Demons

A discussion of demons & the practical magic used to see them in Talmud. While the author is perturbed to see a belief in demons & the magic that unveils them (and the deeper theological implication in a belief in demons & spirits, which is at odds with his modern understanding of monotheism), the spell he includes is extremely interesting. In previous semester work I had difficulty tracking down references to Jewish magic, so this one delighted me.

 And there are magical ways of making demons show themselves. All you have to do is find a black female cat who is the firstborn daughter of a firstborn mother, burn her placenta to ashes, grind the ashes, and put some of them in your eye, and you will be able to see the demons. Be sure, however, to place the remainder of the ashes in a sealed iron tube, lest the demons steal it from you.

It show some markers of folk magic I would expect; the magical qualities of  black cat (as a black cat owner I’m gratified to see it doesn’t advocate harm to cats in any way!), the power of placentas to show things which would otherwise remain hidden,  the importance of birth order, and the power of fire to render things into usable form. I’m not sure I’d want to put something as unhygienic as placenta ash in my eyes, but perhaps this is why I don’t see demons…

The Kabbalah: Letter and Spirit (Visual Discourse)

In more links to Jewish studies, here is a beautiful group of historical images relating to themes of Jewish Kabbalah with some explanations, focusing mostly on its mystical and meditative qualities.

Art and Occultism (Visual Discourse)

By the same author, it is an interesting & eclectic offering of mostly (but not exclusively) 19th century occult ideas & their depictions in art.

Giordano Bruno’s Definition of Magic

An excerpt of definitions of magic. Quite interesting/useful. For my research I particularly like these two:

Second, ‘magician’ refers to someone who does wondrous things merely by manipulating active and passive powers, as occurs in chemistry, medicine and such fields; this is commonly called ‘natural magic’.

Fourth, magic refers to what happens as a result of the powers of attraction and repulsion between things, for example, the pushes, motions and attractions due to magnets and such things, when all these actions are due not to active and passive qualities but rather to the spirit or soul existing in things. This is called ‘natural magic’ in the proper sense.

This one might perhaps offend pagans of my acquaintance, but this kind of rhetoric used to be common:

The sixth sense adds to this the exhortation or invocation of the intelligences and external or higher forces by means of prayers, dedications, incensings, sacrifices, resolutions and ceremonies directed to the gods, demons and heroes. Sometimes, this is done for the purpose of contacting a spirit itself to become its vessel and instrument in order to appear wise, although this wisdom can be easily removed, together with the spirit, by means of a drug. This is the magic of the hopeless, who become the vessels of evil demons, which they seek through their notorious art. On the other hand, this is sometimes done to command and control lower demons with the authority of higher demonic spirits, by honouring and entreating the latter while restricting the former with oaths and petitions. This is transnatural or metaphysical magic and is properly called ‘theurgy’.

The astonishing 2,500 year old tattoos of a Siberian princess, and how they reveal little has changed in the way we decorate our bodies

The “Siberian Princess” found in the Russian permafrost has tattoos of animals significant in Siberian spiritual practices, including deer, and some of what she was buried with indicates she might be a healer or a spiritual leader. The tattoos themselves are beautiful, and the art forms surprised me with their similarity to medieval art found in Ireland. “Not much changes”, indeed.

“How magic survived the disenchantment of the world” Wouter J. Hanegraaff

“How magic survived the disenchantment of the world” Wouter J. Hanegraaff

Abstract: This article argues that the process described by Max Weber as the ‘disenchantment of the world’ iscompatible with the continued vitality of ‘the occult’ in contemporary western culture. Focusing on theexample of ‘hermetic’ magical traditions in western culture before and after the pivotal period of the Enlightenment, the article analyses the relation between continuity and change in the development of thesetraditions from three angles: their theories of magical efficacy, the nature of their practices and the ways inwhich magicians seek to legitimate magic to the wider society as well as to themselves. The discussion demonstrates that the transformation of magic under the impact of modernization and secularization resulted in the paradoxical phenomenon of a ‘disenchanted magic’. The article concludes by proposing a theory that explains why it is actually quite natural for magic to have survived the disenchantment of the world.

It took me a few days to get around to giving this my proper attention, but I really should have done it earlier. As a sociological exploration of how modern magicians think about the magic universe in a way that is consistent with their beliefs in a “scientific” as opposed to a “spiritual” universe, it’s rather on point to my research as to how modern communities of practitioners conceive themselves and their magic. For the researcher of modern magic, it neatly summarizes some of the dominant beliefs I’ve seen in discussing magic, what it is, how it works, and why it’s efficacious.

Beginning with Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment, Hanegraaff argues that the continuing influence of magic after the enlightenment illustrates not a blanket invalidating of Weber’s theory, but that magical theory and dialogue is so fundamentally changed by the theological changes of upper-class Western society known as “the disenchantment of the world” that magic after the enlightenment explains itself and justifies itself completely differently from its Renaissance roots, which were deeply oriented in a religious landscape. By defining “secularisation” as a process which changes how beliefs and rituals are understood to have deeper meaning, he argues for a fundamental post-enlightenment shift in thinking that impacts the worldview and theoretical basis of magic to make it more easily justifiable to modern magicians in a way that is different than the justifications applied to Renaissance magical texts and practices.

Renaissance magi appealed to “natural magic” and the orderly, created universe which was full of deliberate correspondences set down by God for the benefit of humanity. But modern magicians justify magical practice principally by psychologizing their beliefs and lumping the whole of them in as an “unknown science” which is partially pseudo-scientific, partially based on archetypal psychology, and partially related to belief in another kind of unseen reality in which things may be symbolically or fundamentally true in a way that is not literal. From this point of view, “magical techniques are actually psychological techniques intended to develop a mystical consciousness” (366). How this works is not particularly important, rather, what i important for occultists is “only that there is ‘some kind of subtle stuff’ which ‘somehow’ bridges the gap between mind and matter. The presupposition is that magic is ultimately based on the powers of the psyche: ‘it is the mind that works magic’.” (368)

Among the most relevant references for my own research was the very coherent way Hanegraaff articulated  the ‘magical plane’ theory of being the home or origin of magic.

Fundamental to the way occultists rationalize magic is their concept of a separate-but-connected ‘magical plane’ which exists on a different level of reality. On this plane the things of the imagination are believed to be as real as tables and chairs are real in our everyday world. Perhaps the easiest way to explain the magical use of the concept is by the analogy of a computer. The images on the screen may seem very real, but are the direct reflection of an underlying and more fundamental reality ultimately existing of digits and zeros: a parallel reality which remains invisible to the common user. Only the programmer is able to access this level and work with it; any changes he makes on that level are bound to be reflected in the reality on screen. It is not surprising that so many contemporary magicians also turn out to be computer enthusiasts, for magic is believed to work exactly along the same lines. The magician works on a parallel realityor a ‘subtle plane’ where the things of the imagination are real. Just like the computer specialist needs to learn a complex programming language with its own symbols and rules, the magician needs to learn a no less complex language of symbols and equivalences based on elaborate systems of correspondences. By mastering such a symbolic language, it becomes possible for the magician to manipulate the realities on the magical plane; and as a result of such activity things will change on the parallel level of the everyday world. It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of this concept for understanding how magic is legitimated in a disenchanted world. Processes of secularisation and disenchantment inthe everyday world simply have no bearing on the magical plane, and hence do not have to affect the reality of magic. As observed by Luhrmann, the purpose of the concept of the magical plane ‘lies in keeping unhappy bedfellows apart’ (Luhrmann, 1989,p. 276). The other ‘bedfellow’ is precisely the disenchanted reality of everyday life. The dissipation of mystery in this world is compensated for by a separate magical world of the reified imagination, where the everyday rules of science and rationality do not apply. And Luhrmann correctly recognises that this is a new phenomenon in the history of western hermetic magic… (370)

The rest of Hanegraaff’s article is worth a read to see how he uses sociological theories of religion to explain what potential reasons magic users had to adapt the magical universe to a disenchanted world. Not so much on point for my work, as I’m not particularly interested in what theories might have to say about magical practice, but interesting. While secularisation and disenchantment as theories have limited usefulness in many contexts (especially my contexts), his critiques of those theories allowed him to offer up an interesting interpretation of changes in communities of magical thinkers.

Reading Roundup: 12 August 2012

Top 10 Crowley Myths which are Actually True

Crowley remains complicated, important, and influential in the research I do. I find the intersections of his sexuality and the sexual theology based off his esoteric work a complicated intersection. The magical community continues to think of itself in heterosexual and cis-gendered ways when one of its most influential founding writers would now be called bisexual. Crowley is a study of esotericism all to himself.

A New and Greater Pagan Cult: Gerald Gardner & Ordo Templi Orientis

Speaking of Crowley’s complicated relationship to early neopaganism, how about the influences of Ordo Templi Orientis rituals and conversations with Crowley on Pagan rituals on Gerald Gardner? It’s very obvious looking at their work that Gardner borrowed heavily from Crowley, but even this is circular and not as straightforward as saying Gardner “stole” his rituals from OTO, because of Gardner’s initiation into OTO and his conversations with Crowley about religion. And quite frankly, has a ritual ever existed without theft of some kind?

Repetitious, Time-Intensive Magical Rituals Considered More Effective, Study Shows

So, it turns out that the more complicated a ritual is, the more emotionally satisfying it is as a problem-solving tool. I think I’ll be referencing this study in my work as I try to understand what rituals have emotional salience to magic-users.


A collection of links, thoughts, essays, and miscellany about magic, esotericism, & ritual by Lev M. This blog is a part of masters studies at Goddard College.