Burying the Dead

Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘What is Goetia?’ is making the rounds. His approach to doing magic, centered in the individual rather than the art, the cthonic rather than the celestial, is familiar (in the sense of being resonant with my way of doing things; see the witch / wizard discussions), but I’m going to suggest that there is a better way to approach the matter than he does in that essay, one that takes the work outside the (to my mind stultifying) conventions of talking about a Western Magical Tradition ™.

By orienting the discussion toward answering what constitutes that Western tradition, Stratton-Kent falls into an unnecessarily conservative mode. His linguistic analysis is characteristic of this, rooted in the accidental adoption of a strategy with deep imperial and colonial roots. I am almost certain that Stratton-Kent employs it without that in mind, but this is a “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” moment.

The strong difference drawn between the use of the terms goes and magi is false and alienating. Magic derives from magi, in much the same way that goetic derives from goes. They both have clear ties to, for the lack of a better term, ‘priestly’ bodies of knowledge that became something else with the death of the original social worlds that supported them. They both entered into a lively and intertwined long diaspora.

Picking on people for using phrases like ‘goetic demons’ is similarly problematic. The word has an established horizon of meaning which makes phrases like ‘goetic demon’ entirely intelligible. As the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully tells us, it is “of or pertaining to goety.” Which means that if you are summoning demons or devils using a grimoire identified with goety, you can meaningfully call them goetic demons. There is nothing inaccurate about that.

Stratton-Kent doesn’t need to rely on this to make his (quite good) point that we can relate to spirits directly, developing technical means from the relationship, just as well as we can learn technical means first.

By privileging the goes over the magi to make this point, he does much to suppress the distinctiveness of the grimoire material and the distinctiveness of his own re-emphasis to orient it toward the cthonic. In identifying the historical goes with his modern goetic approach, he also misrepresents his own observation that the goes of antiquity were precisely defined by the technical nature of their art, namely:

‘wailing’ or ‘lamenting‘. There is a large group of related words in Greek, the majority of which refer specifically to ancient funeral rites. The tone of voice used in these rituals distinguished the practitioner of goetia, and the concern with the Underworld was equally explicit.

The technical dimensions remain primary, too, in the substance of the grimoires (though the specific techniques vary more widely). In projecting what he does backward, Stratton-Kent seems to undersell how much he achieves by shifting the focus to personal potency and relationships.

The way in which celestial and goetic mingle in the grimoires can be best understood as a result of their long diaspora, broken free of the social structures that would maintain their distinction from each other. That long diaspora makes it a little nonsensical to even talk of them as a tradition because they have taken many different traditional forms based on the circumstances in which members of that diaspora found themselves.

We can talk of certain patterns that appear again and again, but if we cast our eye toward the horizon, we’ll notice that those patterns are not unique to the Western magical tradition, either celestial or goetic. Those patterns seem to be sustained more by their relationship to basic human modes of experiencing the spiritual world than to some line of tradition stretching back through the ages.

The attitude/potency Stratton-Kent claims as ‘goetic’ isn’t a special aspect of the Western magical tradition. It is more basic, resting in our humanity. When it manifests, it manifests in a magpie fashion, laying hold of whatever it can to anchor itself into the fabric of the visible world. Trying to establish a historical lineage for it misses the point that it has an allegiance to the atemporal. Throw away every book with the word ‘goetia’ and the potency would manifest again and again in some other avenue.

It doesn’t need a special history (though it can be informed and illuminated by history). It doesn’t need a special operator (though it can be well-served by a savvy worker).

Consider, for a moment, this report on Angolan quimbandas from the 1600s that I have had in my thoughts for a while:

“There is also among the Angolan pagan much sodomy, sharing one with the other their dirtiness and filth, dressing as women. And they call them by the name of the land, quimbandas, [and] in the district or lands where they are, they have communication with each other. And some of these are fine feiticeiros (sorcerers), for they beget everything bad. And all of the pagans respect them and they are not offended by them and these sodomites happen to live together in bands, meeting most often to give burial services…. This caste of people is who dresses the body for burial and performs the burial ceremony.—Captain Antonio de Oliveira Cadornega in the year 1681 (qtd. by James Sweet in Recreating Africa)

Notice there the similarities with what Stratton-Kent essentializes under the notion of goetia. There is the primary relationship to burial and the secondary relationship to magical operations. The Kongo region more broadly also had a rich stellar tradition connected to pacts with spirits aligned with stars, one with clearer ties to hunters, blacksmiths, and kings…there is probably a longish aside that could go here. Maybe I’ll come back to that another time.

Which makes it seem like the celestial-cthonic axis Stratton-Kent talks about rests in some basic dimension of the human spirit. We don’t need a continuous tradition to approach that human birthright. What we need to appreciate is that the diversity of manifestations are an essential part of the process, not an accident to be erased by a return to a primal root. The diversity of negotiations being done by people all over the world, in all kinds of cultural context, forms the basis for understanding how profound the unity that joins them is.

There are more forms of unity than those envisioned in contemporary esoteric neoplatonism.

I would suggest that Stratton-Kent’s mode of working the goetic tradition derives its scope more properly from that core human modality than it does from a (fictive) goetic tradition that joins him to antiquity. Even though that goetic material provided much of the material for his work, his way of coming at it reflects a sensibility independent from the material.

Trying to link this sensibility tightly to ‘goes’ seems like a repetition of the last century of occult thinking which we would do better to leave behind. We don’t need a Stratton-Kentian ‘goes’ to replace the Gardnerian Witch and Golden Dawn Wizard at the top of the heap.  We don’t need another “the primal origin of the entire Western Tradition of magic.” We need something bigger than that, if for no other reason than that the future that seems on offer is going to rend these sorts of categories to pieces and scatter them on dead ground.

The urge to lay hold of a ‘Western’ tradition itself seems a bit ghastly, a matter of archival accident stitched together with suppressed transmissions and animated with some dim nationalist impulse. It is a little too much necromancy and not enough burial. A proper tradition needs more intimacy than that, it belongs closer to the level of kinship than to the level of the nation-state.

Abandoning the struggle to achieve a Western tradition helps reveal those elements that feed into it, the ones conscripted to march under its banner. It reveals the way in which the long exposure to African, Arab (especially important since for a good long while Europe was just a backwater on the edge of the civilized Arab world), American, and Asian practices shaped the development of these practices.

It is also a step toward acknowledging the lengthy and unequal colonial and mercantile relationships through which many of these influences have come to the attention of Europeans over the last few centuries. It is a step toward a more just magical practice. Just a step, but a step nonetheless.


22 thoughts on “Burying the Dead

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    1. Stacey

      The archives on the Kingdom of Kongo, and the greater Kongo/Angola region, are amazing. Sweet’s book quoted up there makes good use of them to examine Kongo people transplanted to Brazil during slavery. Very worth reading.

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  3. One of the textbooks my school used a few years back referred to a lot of west African cultures in the 1200s-1800s as “stateless societies” in which tribal allegiances, coming-of-age ceremonies in an age-set system, and trans-tribal ‘secret societies’ helped the land have a cohesive structure much more than the system of kings and nobles. Modern-day textbooks are to all intents and purposes written by colonialists, so some investigation on my part demonstrated how awkward all that “stateless society” discussion could be…

    But even so, when I combine that 2-3 paragraph description with your essay here, with some reflection on my own practice… I sorta see that going on. I’m a member of … not a secret society exactly, but a society with secrets. Yes, I’m part of formal groups, but I’m also part of the informal groups that are clustered around particularly effective teachers/shamans/writers/magicians. Those groups have, for better or worse, trained me in ways that make me a modern-day goes… Some of the learning/training came from books, some from personal practice, some from group practice. Some of it is telluric, some celestial, some solar, some lunar. Increasingly, it’s separated out into three societies-with-secrets. It’s not one tradition, but several, merging and cross-contaminating/cross-feeding. In any case it’s messy, it’s got cabalistic and goetic and egyptian and west African (what I know, anyway, is eastern Ghanaian), neoPlatonic and wicca and all kinds of junk adhered onto it… an accretive mass.

    And part of the reason for that, is that what works for a 27-year-old white male is not what works for a 41-year-old white woman, is not what works for a 52-year-old black woman, is not what works for a 23-year-old transgender Jew, and so on. We work on finding what works, right?

    But ideally, it’s rooted in the present moment. Not in modern times, exactly, though allegedly we live in them. No, I mean here and now — that is, helping yourself manifest a change in consciousness; or helping someone else manifest a change in consciousness. It’s helpful to know that there are similar workers all over the world, some working in ‘unbroken traditions’ and some muddling along as best they can, making an effort to be of help and service to others. But it’s the act of listening to others and then trying to help them — through speech, through action, through mojo, through music, through prayer, through silence, through whatever modality reaches them — that makes the work, Work.

    Maybe I’m being too obtuse here. Certainly long-winded.

    1. Io

      I don’t think that is obtuse; I think it is about right, though I am a little skeptical on hanging those needs quite so specifically on those kinds of identities. The thing that seems to be especially important is the overlapping, which is generally harder to talk about without sucking dry the vitality that defines it.

      This part, though, I especially like: “But it’s the act of listening to others and then trying to help them — through speech, through action, through mojo, through music, through prayer, through silence, through whatever modality reaches them — that makes the work, Work.” Yeah, that.

      I don’t trust talk of ‘unbroken’ traditions very much, because it is the breaking that seems basic to this world, and what we call tradition is just the effort to … well, restore what has been broken, but it’s one heck of a mystery wrapped up in that. What does it mean to restore what is present to us as already broken? How do we tie the knots?

      As an aside, in a lot of ways, many of those African societies were ‘stateless’ like medieval Europe was ‘stateless.’ There were all these competing and powerful interests (from guilds to church orders, merchants to mercenaries) operating alongside the more discussed institutions like kings and popes.

      Now, there definitely are parts of Africa that developed more properly ‘acephalous’ organization, where you get power distributed through overlapping systems of communal authority, but colonial accounts tend to over-romanticize and isolate those from broader networks of more central powers…but that is a tangent, to be sure.

      And, of course, there are overlapping forms of social organization inhering even in our hyper-modernized ‘situation’ with its preference for strong top-down hierarchy. They are just harder to see and often undercut.

      1. I think that your skepticism about identities, such as Golden Dawn, Wicca , freemasonry, thelema, and so on is thoroughly warranted. The only unbroken thread stretching to the distant past, I suspect, is DNA. 🙂 If a group has any value at all though, it lies in the ability to practice leadership skills: in my Toastmasters group, this involves developing public relations skills, marketing, membership education, secretarial work, And financial management in the form of the office of Treasurer. I don’t think that the value of this kind of training, which can only happen in a group setting, can be underestimated. for a solo practitioner, it may seem like so much silliness; but in truth I think that it has made me a much more effective public magician. it is hard to practice leadership skills, without actually leading.of course, a club can become moribund and self damaging, just as well as any other institution. Then they are not nearly as effective at training their members, or growing the value set which that society holds.

        I’ll think more on this, and continue at another time.

      2. Io

        I am a pretty big fan of communal magical work (hard to bump into the african diaspora without learning that), even if I am not presently engaged in it. For me, it makes real and visible the diverse forms of spiritual maturity. In my own head, I tend to emphasize responsibility over leadership, but there is a continuum there.

        It is great to see there isn’t one way to all this stuff, but a number of ways, which can nonetheless gather together to make spirit manifest. At least in my limited experience, it seems to make spirit more manifest by virtue of the play of differences between spiritual presences.

        I miss it, but right now the solo work seems to be what is important, what spirit is pushing to develop. I’m hoping that opens back up again, but only time and work will tell.

    2. Rose

      Obtuse, no. I understand, quite well, what you’re saying. Achieving balance can be quite difficult, however, and that is what’s required to work most effectively, regardless of who you are and how you work to Work, you know? Mind, Body, Spirit must all be balanced. Sometimes the Body aspect requires another Body to assist, in more ways than one… and I do mean that in all manner of speaking. Birds of a feather flock together, as they say…

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