ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
magic failRegular readers of this journal may recall that some weeks ago, as part of a broader project of magical instruction, I critiqued a loudly publicized attempt to attack Donald Trump and his followers with malevolent magic. (You can find my earlier journal entry here, and the original announcement here.)  Michael Hughes, who launched the working in question and continues to champion it, belatedly found out about my critique, and posted a lively (if, to my mind, woefully inadequate) defense of his project in the comments to that entry. The internet being what it is, resuming the conversation in a current journal entry struck us both as a good idea.

Since much of what follows will involve serious disagreements about the nature of magic—and, more importantly, the nature of effective magic—it’s probably worth taking a moment to talk a bit about my qualifications to speak on that subject. I started magical training as a teenager in the mid-1970s, when good practical guides to Golden Dawn magic first became widely available, and have kept at it ever since. Over the years I’ve completed the full courses of magical training and initiation offered by four Hermetic and three Druid orders, as well as receiving extensive training and certification in Renaissance astrological magic and traditional Southern conjure. 

Of my more than fifty published books, just over half are on the subject of magic and occultism, and these include such standard reference works as The New Encyclopedia of the Occult. I’ve translated, co-translated, and/or edited such magical classics as the Picatrix, Eliphas Levi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, and Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn. I also served for twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). All this is to say that I’ve studied and practiced a lot of magic, in a lot of different traditions, and know my way around the subject pretty thoroughly. Neither I nor anyone else knows everything there is to know about magic, to be sure, but I do know something of what I’m talking about.

One of the main things I’ve learned from all this is that magic isn’t whatever you want it to be. It’s easy and, these days, popular to slap together various notions extracted from a grab-bag of disparate systems wrenched out of their cultural and philosophical contexts, on the basis of the latest pop-culture fashions, and insist that the result is just as valid and meaningful as anything else. The resulting postmodern pablum is no doubt comforting to those who like to think that the past has nothing to teach them, but the results of such magic are generally far from impressive. Thus I tend to rely on those teachings and systems that have proven themselves over decades or centuries, even—or especially—when they contradict current pop-culture fads.

Two other points are worth making before we proceed.  First, there’s quite a bit to be said about the moral dimension of malevolent magic, but I don’t propose to say it here. It so happens that these days, a great many people like to insist, in effect, that whatever they want is justifiable because they want it, and such issues as the blowback from malevolent magic only apply to those who believe in them. This is a little like insisting that drinking Drano is only bad for your digestion if you think it is, but I don’t propose to pursue that argument here. What I propose to discuss, rather, are the reasons why the working we’re discussing isn’t going to accomplish anything—other, that is, than meeting certain emotional needs on the part of its participants.

The second point I want to make is that the moral character or political significance of Donald Trump and his followers are not the issues here. If your cure is ineffective, it doesn’t matter how bad you think the disease is.  In the same way, insisting that Trump is the evilest evil that ever eviled does not prove that a given working directed against him is going to work. The powers behind magic do not care what you think about Donald Trump, and the sense of cosmic entitlement that leads some people to believe that something has to strike down a politician they hate, just because they hate him, does not make for competent magical theory—or practice.

With that in mind, I’ll proceed to my four criticisms of the working we’re discussing.

First of all, the intention is badly chosen. In crafting a magical working, it’s crucial to have a clear, tautly focused intention; it’s even more important to make sure that the intention will actually bring you what you want.  Thus the first requirement of effective magic is to be very sure about what you want to accomplish, and to choose an intention with this in mind.

There’s an old story along these lines, much told in traditional occult schools, about a guy who wanted to get rich via magic. To do this, he did a working that involved visualized himself handling stacks and stacks of money. He promptly lost his well-paying job, and the only job he could find was in a bank, where he made a low wage counting stacks and stacks of other people’s money. He got what he asked for, in other words, rather than what he actually wanted.

That’s the first level of failure hardwired into this working. It focuses on binding and harming Donald Trump and his followers, rather than revitalizing American democracy, leading the country in some new and better direction, or even helping the Democratic Party pull itself together and win back the voters it lost in 2016. If the working succeeds—it won’t, for reasons I’ll discuss further on, but we’ll let that pass for now—there’s no reason to assume that the results would do anything at all to benefit the people and causes who have been getting hurt since Trump’s inauguration. If Trump falls, after all, the interests and demographics backing him can easily find another figurehead for their cause. What’s more, it’s entirely possible that the next one would be even worse than Trump.

The working does nothing to forestall that, where a working with a positive focus of the kind I just indicated would counter that neatly. That being the case, the fixation on malevolent magic is really rather odd—though it’s a familiar oddity. For decades now, people on the leftward end of the political spectrum, when they think of doing political magic, have tended to default immediately to malevolent workings even in situations when benevolent workings would be far more useful. The return of the repressed clearly has a lot to do with it, and so does the old but by no means outworn occult maxim: “What you hate, you imitate.” 

Michael, in our earlier interchange, I asked you whether you’d considered doing a benevolent working to strengthen American democracy or revitalize the Democratic Party. You didn’t answer. I’m going to ask it again, and I’d like you to answer it. It’s one thing to do a malevolent working when that really is the only option; it’s quite another to do one when there are many other options that will do more good for the causes you claim to support. The fixation on curses and bindings really does make it look as though the point of this working is to feed your hatred and rage toward a politician and a demographic sector you don’t like, rather than doing anything to help a democracy in terminal crisis.

Let’s go on to the next point:  the ritual is incoherent. An effective magical ritual combines carefully chosen symbols to produce an effect exactly in tune with the intention. If you want to do a love spell, you don’t use symbolism that evokes solitude and cold reason; if you want to do a prosperity spell, you don’t use symbols of loss and letting go. More precisely, if you do, you’re not going to get results from your working, because your intention and your symbolism are at odds with each other.

This working is so good an example of what not to do that I’m planning on using it in the future in teaching students about ritual design. The intention of the working is to bind Trump and his followers, but one of the core symbols of the working is the Tarot trump XVI, The Tower. Not only is this not a symbol of binding, it’s exactly the opposite, a symbol of the shattering of bindings. To use it in a binding spell is rather like trying to put out a fire by dumping gasoline on it, or knotting your shoelaces while cutting them with a knife. 

The incoherent nature of the symbolism is bad enough in itself, but it has another, far more serious downside. The working we’re discussing, after all, is not unopposed. There are plenty of people in the US who support the Trump administration, and a significant number of them know at least as much about magic as do the people who hate Trump and all his works. Using an incoherent ritual, one that includes its own antithesis in its symbolism, gives the other side an immense advantage in their countering magic.

One simple way to make the working ineffective would be to gather at the same time the working is being done, and redirect the symbolism of The Tower onto the working itself. That could be done in a simple way—say, by visualizing the lightning bolt striking the tower and bursting the bindings. It could also be done in a much more potent and effective way—say, by tying ten loops of thread onto a card of The Tower, linking them magically to the bindings the working is trying to place, invoking the ten spheres of the Tree of Life in the order of the Lightning Flash, and with each invocation, cutting one of the loops of thread with a consecrated working tool. There are other ways to exploit the incoherence in the ritual, too, and some of them are considerably more potent than the ones I’ve just described.

The powers behind magic, as noted earlier, do not care what anybody thinks about Donald Trump. They won’t make an incoherent ritual work anyway just because somebody happens to want that. Nor, crucially, will they take sides in a magical donnybrook between one set of mages that hates Trump and another set that supports him. That leads us to the next point.

The public nature of the working guarantees that it will fail. This isn’t just a matter of magical philosophy, though of course Eliphas Levi discussed it at some length in his writings. It’s a matter of basic common sense. If you were a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War, let’s say, would you go out of your way to make sure that the Nazis knew your plans? If you’re playing poker, would you show the other players the cards in your hand? Not if you wanted to win, you wouldn’t.

Michael, when I raised this point in my original journal entry, your sole response was to claim that you laugh at the mages of the alt-Right. No doubt you do, but they’re also laughing at you, and with considerably better reason. By publishing the details of your intention, ritual, and timing all over the internet, you’ve guaranteed that all the people who want to mess with your working have everything they need to do so, while you have no knowledge of what they’re doing and so are at a huge disadvantage if you want to counter it. Dismissing that possibility out of hand really makes me wonder how seriously you take this project of yours.

Finally, rituals of this kind consistently don’t work, and this one isn’t working either.  This is hardly the first time a few thousand Neopagans have gotten together online and organized a coordinated mass working, using a specific spell, to try to make something happen. In my original post, I mentioned one of the largest of these, the attempt to cure the late Isaac Bonewits of cancer by performing massed magical workings. It was a total failure. There have been plenty of other examples of the same kind of working, and the vast majority of them have been equally abject flops. Thus experience simply doesn’t support the claim that rituals of this kind are an effective means of causing change through magic.

Michael, you claimed in your earlier comment that the resignations of White House staff, the Mueller investigation, and the FBI raid on Trump’s lawyer show that your working really is doing something. To my mind, that’s handwaving, as the gyrations you’ve cited have occupied plenty of space in the media, and distracted many of Trump’s opponents from the hard work of building a political coalition that could defeat him in 2020, without actually doing anything to inconvenience Trump or keep him from pursuing his agenda.

The reality is quite the contrary.  Over the period that you and the other participants have been doing your working, Trump has gutted Obamacare by abolishing the individual mandate, begun deportations of undocumented aliens, breached the global free trade system by imposing massive tariffs on China, repealed thousands of federal regulations, and scored a massive foreign-policy coup by bringing North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table. What’s more, according to recent news stories, his approval ratings are higher now than Obama’s were at the equivalent point in the latter’s presidency. So what exactly has your binding stopped him from doing?

I take a wry amusement in the fact that people who pursue mass workings of this sort nearly always dodge such questions, and insist that they’re succeeding even when the evidence contradicts that claim. I tend to see that as a tacit admission that what’s going on, down at the root, isn’t about magic—it’s about virtue signaling. While this working won’t do anything to inconvenience Donald Trump or his administration, it’s a great way to proclaim one’s identity as one of the “good people”—and of course it’s also one heck of a lot easier to spend twenty minutes or so once a month pouring out hate at a politician you happen to despise than it is to roll up your sleeves and get to work helping to rebuild the tattered remnants of American democracy from the ground up. 
ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
Yet again, one of the classic ways to fail at magic is getting the ol' Hogwarts try.

One of my readers -- tip of the hat to Tunesmith -- brought to my attention another attempt by people on the leftward end of the occult scene to use magic to influence US politics. You can read about it here if you like; the short form is that the organizer gave the script for a simple (as in abject beginner-level) spell intended "to bind Donald Trump and all who abet him," and instructed participants to do the spell on every waning crescent moon. 

I discussed the problems with this kind of magic in a post on one of my old blogs, but the point deserves making again -- and this example of the species has an interesting feature some of my readers may want to know about. 

A surprising number of people seem to think that binding spells are exempt from the kind of blowback that tends to happen with curses. Not so; no magic, anywhere, is exempt from blowback. Whenever you do a magical working, the energies of that working are going to affect you as well as the target of the working. That's why spells for healing, blessing, and other good things are a good idea; the person for whom you do them benefits, and so do you. The underlying principle is what I call the Raspberry Jam Law: with magic, as with raspberry jam, you can't spread it on anything else without getting it all over your own hands. 

The blowback from a binding spell is quite simply that you bind yourself when you bind anyone else. (Tip of the archdruidical hat to Dewey, who commented to this effect in the original discussion.) If you keep this in mind and choose your intentions judiciously, you can do it and not have any troubles; for example, quite early in my magical training I did a very effective binding spell on a domestic abuser -- he stopped abusing his victim (and in fact dropped entirely out of her life), and accepting the same binding on myself was as acceptable as it was unnecessary. The intention in this spell wasn't done with any particular care, though, and I doubt the people who are hard at work doing it really want to bind their own tongues and works -- but that's what they've done. 

Still, there's another dimension to this particular epic fail. Er, folks -- 


If you set up a magical working of this kind on a public blog, and get people to splash eager discussions of it all over other public internet spaces, guess what? People who disagree with your goals will find out about it. There are a lot of people in the alt-Right who are into occultism, and some of them know quite a bit about the subject. By splashing this all over the internet, the organizer of this project guaranteed that on every waning crescent from now until Trump finishes the second term he's probably going to get at this point, alt-Right occultists are going to gather and do their own magic to mess with the proposed spell. Since they already know the dates, the time, the intention, and every detail of the ritual, throwing a metaphysical monkey wrench into the gears is child's play -- especially since they won't be limited to the kind of simple magical working in which everyone can participate. 

All this is uncomfortably reminiscent of another failure along similar lines. Some years ago, when the late Isaac Bonewits was dying of cancer, people in the Neopagan community organized a so-called "Rolling Thunder" ritual to try to keep him alive. It was put together online in the same way as the working we're discussing, and it failed completely -- he died a few months after the working got going. Why? Bonewits was the opposite of an uncontroversial figure in the Neopagan scene; he was in fact very good at making enemies, and since the organizers of the working obligingly made sure that everyone knew exactly what the spell was that they were trying to use, those people who hated Bonewits' guts (and there was no shortage of those) had everything they needed to mess with the spell. I don't know for a fact that that's what happened, but that's my best guess. 

And it's my best guess, in the present case, that blowback from the working we're discussing may be one of the factors behind the really quite impressive failure of the Democratic Party to learn any of the lessons of its 2016 defeat or come up with a meaningful alternative to Trumpismo on the march. I wonder how many would-be anti-Trump activists have systematically placed a binding on their own tongues and works by plunging into this misbegotten project -- with, no doubt, the genial help of alt-Right mages.

What a flustered cluck. 

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