Okay, so I promised you some critical throat-clearing, right? Maybe I should say threatened rather than promised? Whatever the case, this is the first (and maybe last) exercise to that point. This is going to run a little long.
This blog began light and fast. I jumped into this trying to write nearly daily and giving myself a maximum post length (1000 words). While I quickly dropped the nearly daily goal, I kept up a pretty good pace. I let the maximum post length go to the wayside, but generally posts here haven’t exceeded 1000 words very often. I referenced a broad terrain of magical practice, but I didn’t make too much effort to pull it all together. That’s primarily because I didn’t feel much of a need to pull it all together; it already was all together.
That isn’t to say that my practice was totally systematic or encompassing. Quite the opposite, it was (and is) very partial and proceeded (and proceeds) according to an inner logic that manifested (and manifests) within the practice itself. The ‘all together’ was not present in the practice, but in the sense that practice formed my part of the ‘all together,’ flowed into it in ways that I accepted were opaque.
As I blogged, I looked around a little more in the online occult scene and all the historical discussions tickled my scholarly fancies. I started to incorporate a little more explicit historical work into the blogging. In itself, that isn’t exactly a problem. My practice has frequently been shaped by encounters with historical or mythical scholarship, by an idea or rite that provided some inspiration for navigating through a curve in my ritual work.
There is a weird thing going on with the online scene in general, though. While it is great and useful to read broadly around occult matters, I keep seeing this tendency toward historical nostalgia, to discovering unities in the historical record into which one can curl their spiritual practice. I get the appeal of it, because I spent a number of years seeking out that unity first through Ocha and then through a historical account in which the practices of Ocha could be embedded or explained, before realizing that there was something else I needed to live.
I learned a lot doing the historical shuffle, but what I learned about most wasn’t in the material itself. It was between the lines of all the historical accounts I read and the relationships that I speculated on between the widely distributed but clearly related spiritual practices I found. What I found was that their wasn’t an overarching unity to be uncovered, only a an increasingly complex map of the dialogues that developed between these practices. There wasn’t one way to do thing, but dozens.
There were clear dialogues, too, where practices clearly diverged from each other according to how they organized the same elements into quite different constellations of meaning and application. Tree, snake, and bird, but in different configurations and valued differently. This is where a background in structuralism and Gilles Deleuze was a great help. It readied me to see these sorts of relationships by way of difference.
It wasn’t all structural, though. There were differences in content, too. Part of what differentiated one practice from another had to do with the elements available to be configured. So, yes, we can talk about the broad relationship between Sun, Moon, and the fertility of crops in both Sumer and Aztlan, but if we have to appreciate that the conceptual structure is configured around the specific cycles of crops and other plants in the lives of the Sumerians and Mexica, configured, too, around the landscape in which these cycles transpired.
Configured, too, to the contingencies that give shape to this or that community, its language and habits, its histories and heroes. The intense attachment of people to these things is part of what makes the magical techniques that employ them their efficacy. However, when the lived intensity of attachment is missing, the potency of the techniques is similarly blunted. We can use the husk of a culture, because in some way that is what the culture is to begin with, a special sort of husk, but if we are not joined to the culture in a vital way, the well we are drawing upon is shallow.
This is what historical study promises to provide, of course. But the longer I spent undertaking it, the more clearly I appreciated how this is not the case. I became increasingly aware of the projections and speculations needed to give historical evidence life, of the disparateness of evidence as it compares to the richness of daily spiritual life. What the historical study did do was improve my sense of constellation, my sense for the operations that define it.
Let me get a little specific, though.
I recently finished reading Pijro Lapinkivi’s The Sumerian Sacred Marriage in the Light of Comparative Evidence, which I had been dipping into on and off for the last few months. It’s one of those books that is admirably light on argument (which isn’t to say it lacks one) and heavy with evidence. Lapinkivi moves through Ugaritic, Sumerian, Assyrian, Jewish, Gnostic, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Indic, and I’m-sure-I’m-forgetting-something material with grace and insight to chisel out a broadly shared, mystical conception of the soul and redemption that is entangled with fertility, astrology, and magic.
All said and done, she only needs to rack up some 1,274 footnotes over the course of 269 pages to bring her project to fruition. It’s impressive. There is even a brief comparative aside to the striking similarities between the sacred marriage’s connection to kingship in antiquity to the sacred Shinto rites associated with the emperor of Japan. And an appendix as to why she excluded the Egyptian material (hint: it’s not because it was too much to tackle.)
It was all extraordinarily familiar. The way in which she connects Sophia, Ishtar, Inanna, Shekinah, figures of the Mahavidya, Hecate of Hesiod, Hecate of the Chaldean Oracles, etc., etc. (you get the idea, right? She has contextualized broadly), runs back and forth over the terrain of my own reading chasing down personal gnosis. Where I seem to have been intersecting with this material piecemeal as it interacts with my spiritual progress, she has traced out a similar terrain by thoroughly studying the corpus of materials available from a historical perspective.
If we were talking in Jungian terms, we might say that what I have explored primarily under the guidance of my Introverted intuition, she has explored through Extroverted Sensation. At the end of the day, it’s clear to me that my spiritual work and the subject of her study point are articulated around some common phenomenon.
Stacey also recently pointed out an article on Ev Cochrane’s website to me in which we can see still more of that common terrain. What Cochrane blasts out of the mythological terrain in order to explore a somewhat eccentric theory about archaeology and astronomical events meshes well with the terrain of my spiritual life, too. The relationship of Venus and Saturn, for example, is the heart of my spiritual life (grubby witchcraft, right?). Heck, the article extends the comparative frame to Itzpapalotl, who is also an important node in my spiritual frame.
Cochrane makes a common mistake, identifying Aphrodite with Venus the planet. The Greeks did eventually do that, but only after extended contact with the Babylonians. Breaking the identification, however, actually helps Cochrane’s case—if Aphrodite doesn’t have to be the planet Venus, she can be the freely moving body of the comet. Stacey also pointed out that the notion of loose hair as code for the comet’s tail could also be applied to things like volcanic eruptions. To which my mind immediately went to the nest of unruly dead, the wild hunt family of myths, the woman who leads, and the connection of such events to the sudden death of many people, an unruly mass.
There are three broad temporal levels or scales going on here, though. There is the scale of time encompassed by my life (decades), the scale encompassed by Lapinkivi’s historical study (a few millenia), and that projected by Cochrane’s archaeological frame (many millenia). These things don’t mesh with each other. They seem to be a piece of a broader puzzle, but the nature of their connection isn’t clear.
My personal gnosis, for all its sympathy with these broad comparative frames, is personal. It has unfolded in the scale of my life. It’s a confluence dreams, divination, prayer, and consecrations building upon some basic dimensions of my spiritual being. Reading around the literature as I have done has helped here and there, but in general every time I have drifted toward a practice structured by what I find in that reading, I have stalled out until I got back to working within the concrete dimensions of my life, small though they may sometimes be.
While the other two frames are richly suggestive, they don’t intersect well with that. The astro-archaeological speculations don’t help me explain why this material is so spiritually relevant to me, though they have pointed me toward the heavens as they are now. That attention has opened my practice toward the movement of certain stars and the Moon, which has energized my work in a few key ways.
Cochrane, though, doesn’t provide any reference point for why this would be. For all the comparative evidence, how is it that these specific stellar bodies impact my work if their mythic significance is only the memory of a distant event?
Lapinkivi’s study excited me because in it I can see how the work I am doing has been done before, has ties to the work done by disparate groups in antiquity under different names and with somewhat different methods. However, it doesn’t provide me much more than that. The unity she describes to the sacred marriage traditions make good sense, the connections shared around certain astrological observations dovetail with some of my own, but in the end the diversity of method and name only amplifies that what I am undertaking is one more variation on the themes she lays out.
There is little that I can take directly from that book except to suggest that I am not alone in my experience (which isn’t nothing).
A closer examination of my frame shows up some of the problems of holding to a strictly historical register, too, as Cochrane attempts to do. The Aztecs, for example, are not at all contemporary to much of the material cited from Greek and Indic antiquity. They seem to have developed at a different time-scale, suggesting that they might not be dealing with a common memory as he suggests, but perhaps a common view on some things that don’t quite share the same temporal trajectory in which we seem to live out our lives.
Though it is entirely possible that our entanglement with these transtemporal objects join us to disparate moments in the timeline of our everyday material world, making an ancient past (or future, or both) cataclysm also somehow present to us, present to me, in my daily work, sometimes using the names of spirits who are contacted to learn more about the fall of the angels from heaven, I can’t use that in my spiritual practice except to stimulate a sense of wonder (which, again, isn’t nothing).
I know, that last paragraph is one sentence. I’m sorry. I’m purging, alright?
(Okay, there is more than just wonder that this stimulates, but that is a discussion all its own.)
There’s more to this. If I look around I can see that while there are many who are in contact with some aspect of my spiritual world, who are entangled in some way with my gnostic wonderland in much the same way as I am entangled with the people who left these historical traces. I can also see that there are others who are entangled in mysteries unlike mine, who are caught up with different gnostic wonderlands. At best, these seem to be attached to mine only at odd angles or by some fairly disparate link.
When it comes to communicating with each other, what scale will most help us? Well, my bet is that the deepest sort of communication is going to happen at the scale of our lives, not at the historical or archaeological scale. It is going to come down to figuring out how, or whether, we can weave our concrete practices together, not whether we can find a horizon in which they might converge.
It is less a matter of speaking the same language; the way that Lapinkivi’s study crosses linguistic and mythological boundaries is clear enough evidence that there is something else beyond language with which we are involved. It comes down to something, well, more musical, to timing, to rhythm, to the way in which the sound from multiple instruments can come together to produce a richer sound. The historical horizon isn’t irrelevant, but like the stars we find there, history provides more orientation than substance.
It’s also important to realize how important it is to diverge, to share a moment and then go our separate ways, winding in and out, back and forth. Communication first, with agreement and disagreement something that only occasionally becomes relevant.
I’m not sure that can be done terribly well outside of face-to-face interactions, because so much else puts us back, again and again, in the troubling terrain of texts and evidence which aren’t really what this is all about. But there may be some ways to cultivate good habits.
Sheesh, there are probably a few more throat-clearing topics. I’ll stop here and figure out how much they matter to me. Sometimes you just have to clean, but I would kind of like to jump past this too? Ah well, I’ll err toward thorough cleaning.