In Defense of Neopaganism

It’s been said, I forget who by, that “a popular occult movement is a stupid occult movement”. I may substantially agree to this, but you could remove the word “occult” from the statement and it would hold just as strongly. Popular movements are almost always impelled by our lowest natures—natures which cannot, and should not, be denied, but also shouldn’t be given free reign either. This is as true in spirituality as it is in the hard sciences, politics, or anywhere else. But none of this is to say that the mainstream is inherently stupid.

As odd as it sounds, there is not just one “mainstream”; each culture, subculture, and even counterculture will have its own mainstream which defines the mean opinions, assumptions, ideals, fashions, and other trends within the grouping. Even the smallest of populations—say, your neighborhood coven of Witches—will have a mainstream, even if it has a rather weak current by which to pull dissenters along. A mainstream can be dangerous on a large scale, as it then has the torrent of a spring melt-flooded river which can crush the spirits and the bones of those who try to resist in unsubtle ways. The good of such a current, however, is that those who are unable to devote all of their personal time, energy, and resources to constant research and refinement will still have access to a sort of progress, so long as they are content with much of the research, refinement, and, most pointedly, interpretation and implementation being done for them. We all must do this to some degree in most areas of life; there is simply not enough time in the day to be constantly questioning every facet of culture, so we very often just have to give a lot of things a pass so that we can focus on whichever particular happens to be a priority. Harm can come of being too passive, of course, but there is also wisdom in focusing on what is within one’s own sphere of influence and trying to make that useful to others rather than trying to horn in on an area in which one has no expertise or power and trying to steer an unfamiliar ship in a storm.

Neopaganism serves as just such a mainstream for the occult world and, to a large extent, the world of alternative spirituality in general. Despite (sometimes alarmist, sometimes smug) reports to the contrary, Neopaganism appears to be fairly healthy as a movement, though you will see very different states of health (as with anything) depending on where you are and how you choose to look for it. Even the New Age, which still holds a central place in the marketplace of popular alternative spirituality, takes most of its cues from what it sees Neopaganism doing. Generally, there is a process of whitewashing over the aspects which are unsavory to a mindset still largely tinged with a liberalized form of Abrahamic moralism—just look at what they did to Yoga!—but the ideas and practices are generally still very recognizable for their roots in Witchcraft and Hermeticism. Moreover, had it not been for the popularization of Neopaganism, many of what are today considered to be classics of Western occult spirituality and magical practice would not be so readily available: the works of Eliphas Levi, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Israel Regardie, William G. Gray, and numerous others would likely have fallen into the dustbin of the history of ideas, and those who wanted their books would be scrambling to afford out-of-print editions. Moreover, almost none of the greats of more recent years through to the present would be there! Scott Cunningham, Raymond Buckland, Paul Huson, Joseph H. Peterson, Lady Sheba, Doreen Valiente, John Michael Greer, Mark Stavish, and numerous others, would not have seen print, or at least not mass print, if not for the relative popularity of Neopaganism. Yes, even your favorite boutique Luciferian LHP Traditional Qlippothic Witchcraft publisher of 666 copy limited editions (Only For Serious Occultists, of course) would have no market to sell to if not for the Neopaganism which brought Llewellyn and Weiser to prominence by selling Cunningham, Buckland, Regardie, et al. So, dark-hooded Satanists, thank your local Wiccan coven and Druid grove for your ability to find Lord Beelzebub Cindersoul’s Grimoire of Dusk on Amazon for $12.49. (Don’t take any of this too personally; I own some great books from Theion Publishing and Scarlet Imprint and listen to more than my share of black metal.)

The same can be said of community: without Neopaganism, there would be no occult community. While it’s true that lodge organizations such as the Freemasons did traditionally serve such a function, and that magical groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn did predate the majority of Neopaganism’s history, it’s also true that HOGD imploded quickly and spectacularly while Freemasonry is in decline (and is not welcoming to women). These, and groups like them, certainly influenced the rise and dissemination of Neopaganism, but Neopaganism has largely absorbed a number of valuable lessons from them while rejecting what was not useful to its own communal life. While there are any number of private working groups of magicians, Witches, and Druids, solitary practitioners who mostly keep to themselves, and invitation-only salons, Neopaganism largely operates in the open. Covens advertise themselves on social media to let people know what’s going on in their area; shops and event spaces operate on the open market to draw in even the most casually curious of patrons; Pagan Pride Day celebrations happen in most major cities of the US; Druid groves offer public or semi-public rituals for major solar feast days in the same way that Hindu temples have public pujas celebrating a variety of holidays throughout the year. Such events are very often the first taste of ritual many people get, or at least their first taste of group ritual outside of the churches in which many grew up. They also present opportunities for meeting people who do things differently and learning from them, making contacts with other practitioners for later exchanges, and making friends who share similar interests and values. As with any forum, it is true that many people involved won’t be worth the trouble, but some will, and those few can make quite a difference for someone trying to learn, grow, and connect.

A final point to make concerns the common complaint that Neopaganism is for only “shallow” practitioners. This goes back somewhat to the idea of the mainstream, but is worth visiting in its own right. I’m far from the first to make the observation that not everyone in a given spiritual or religious movement is immediately interested in leadership or clergy roles, nor even the highest initiations and deepest practices. And, as hard as it for a lot of magicians and mystics to understand, that’s okay. There’s good reason why magicians and mystics have always been in a hard minority in almost every human society: they require specialized skill sets demanding a lot of time and effort. It just cannot be everyone’s priority. Just as with scientists and engineers, what magicians and mystics “bring back with them” can benefit anyone who wants it even if they would not have found it on their own. Consider the Nathas, Aghoris, and other sadhus in India as an ancient example: large groups of people may gather around them, attend their dhuni rituals, seek their blessings, request their magical aid, and go to them for spiritual guidance, and bring back what they can to their workaday lives without ever even considering becoming initiates themselves. Everyone contributes as they can, bringing offerings to the dhuni, giving food and other necessities to the sadhus, and shelter to pilgrims coming from afar to make the visit, and nobody is left feeling like they do not have a place in the spiritual life of the community. It can be the same among Witches, Druids, and Heathens.

Those of us who do spend most of our time going deeper into magical and mystical practice often have a tendency toward hermitage. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it definitely aids in our practice. But it also behooves us to occasionally come out to public events, or get to know our local metaphysical shopkeepers, teach classes and workshops, and otherwise make connections and spread what we’ve learned. Not only are we benefiting others, we are also making connections which can benefit ourselves. Community is a necessity, not a luxury; we are social beings, like it or not. “Society” may even constitute an ontological plane unto itself, just as worthy of the occultist’s attention as the realm of spirits and gods. And Neopaganism is not only the most accessible but also the broadest umbrella among alternative spiritual communities. Skepticism of community involvements is smart, but we shouldn’t let egotism and elitism get in the way of potential valuable experiences.


A Bardon Community — Reflections on a Trend

Many years ago, when I was just beginning to read and practice Franz Bardon’s Initiations Into Hermetics (“IIH” for short), the Czech magician’s system of training was fairly obscure outside of some fairly serious students of occultism. Today, the situation has changed considerably, with Bardon’s writings being pretty well known to nearly every occultist, magician, or Neopagan out there. And that’s great. I’m very happy that Bardon, especially IIH, is getting more attention and is finding his way into more and more occult training routines. There’s even a growing community of Bardon practitioners out there who are doing their part to spread what, to my eyes, is the single best system of mystical and magical training native to the Western world available in any European language. This community’s growing pains, however, are all rife with their own lessons.

I’ve only recently come into contact with what I’m broadly referring to as “the Bardon community”. I’m not antisocial, but I am pretty good at keeping to myself, and I take the old injunction “To Keep Silent” pretty seriously — and apparently far more at face value than most — so I don’t tend to seek people out with whom to discuss these things. But this blog, Facebook, and other venues are obvious breaches in my fortress whereby people can find me and have conversations. So, by way of just having this blog, I found myself in discussions with a variety of people and am learning of this community that I never really knew existed as such. Much of what I’m learning is very encouraging, while some of it is quite troubling indeed. I’d like to address some of those challenges in this post, not to shame or blame anyone but to give what I think is useful food for thought that this burgeoning Bardonism might develop a healthy trunk from the strong roots Bardon himself laid down.

The first thing to strike me about the loose association of Bardon practitioners is the abundance of schools, not just in the sense of institutions intent on giving guidance to other practitioners but in the sense of competing camps of interpretation and application. In both of these senses, the various “schools of Bardonism” are prone to mislead. I do not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with a more experienced practitioner making themselves available as a resource to those coming after, and I also do not have anything necessarily against them making some money from it. After all, the time, energy, and expertise which goes into this process can be great and is deserving of tribute or acknowledgment on the part of the fortunate student. But Bardon’s works are very intentionally structured as yogic self-study. If pursued with diligence and patience, most questions will answer themselves. Any further filling-in of the outline of IIH is actually quite counterproductive, as a large portion of the educational value of IIH is exercising not only the discipline but also the creativity and even playfulness which make the exercises practical and which integrate them into our daily lives and deeper psychology.

The structure of IIH was left sparse very deliberately. Bardon did not see himself as a taskmaster nor as the dean of a school giving a precise curriculum. Though he intended that the outline be followed as written — and I strongly suggest that any students reading this take that point extremely seriously — he left all of the details out because those must be deeply personal, organically adapted to the particular needs of the individual mind and body. Just as importantly, it is the individual practitioner who must come up with this themselves! Having someone else do all of the tailoring for you is merely robbing yourself of the opportunity for self-knowledge. A Bardonic teacher, then, would ideally act like a preceptor in the Nath tradition: they are available to answer questions but mostly make it their job to turn the student back in upon themselves, saying only enough to give the student the confidence to explore more deeply and to try again with renewed vigor. To be quite terse, if you aren’t willing to fill in a lot of these apparent gaps for yourself, Bardon’s methods probably aren’t for you, at least not just yet.

This last point opens up another topic I see among some Bardonian teachers out there: the claim that Initiation Into Hermetics is somehow inaccessible to all but a minority or, put differently, that “normal people” aren’t capable of practicing it. To this I respond: No more than any other system of inner training. There is no call either to feel superior for engaging with IIH nor to put others off of it because of its difficulty. It is one thing to give someone an earnest heads-up that what they’re about to embark upon is not for the dilettante, but it is not our job to tell anyone else that they just can’t do it. As my Nath preceptor put it in regard to that tradition, if the karmas are there, you’ll find your way to it and, to large extent, that’s that. It doesn’t make anyone innately special, nor “higher” or “lower” than someone engaged in something else.

While Bardon did not consider his books to be any sort of doctrinal canon (on which more later), nevertheless it seems odd to me how many Bardonian teachers take it upon themselves to criticize the basic structure. I have heard from a few commentators, for example, that Bardon’s system is too “fiery” and not enough “watery”. I daresay such a critique actually misunderstands the Hermetic elements and how they fit together. I have yet to see from the West so balanced an approach to the elemental forces as Bardon’s; many other systems would do well to take clues from the structure of IIH (and, depending on how they do things, The Practice of Magical Evocation [PME] and Key to the True Quabbalah [KTQ] as well) to avoid the pitfalls of certain other famous modern Western occult training methods. I will leave it mostly up to the student to figure out what I mean about the nature of the elements and how they balance dynamically in IIH. It may serve for now, though, to point out that water, in the human economy, is primarily the function of the reflective mind. This includes, but is not limited to, sensation (physical and emotional), self-observation, collation of data (sensory or rational), and the capacity for devotion. The student will find all of the above quite amply represented in the work of Initiation Into Hermetics.

Finally — and I have seen others comment on this point as well — there is an abundance of, and seeming focus on, commentaries. This goes back a lot to what I said previously about the various schools and teachers in evidence in every direction within the Bardon community. Everyone also seems to have their own commentary, especially on IIH. As I observed in the last paragraph, Bardon would not have described his works as any sort of sacred canon, therefore neither should we consider anyone else’s work on the topic to be canonical. If any of these commentaries provides some helpful guidance or clarity, that’s wonderful, but we should not become obsessed by any given reading. IIH is not the Vijñāna Bhairava or the Yoga Sutras; it is not intended to be a set of mnemonic aphorisms needing to be unpacked by a Guru. For fear of repeating myself too much, yet reinforcing a very necessary point, IIH is in outline for a number of important reasons and it is up to the individual practitioner to creatively and experimentally fill in many of the gaps on their own. A commentary can, at the absolute best, only show an example of how one person filled them in. If we fall into the trap of treating someone else’s example as the sine qua non of the practice, we dead-end ourselves far more than we might believe. Worse, we may create for ourselves the illusion of progress which can be very difficult to see through as we have convinced ourselves that someone else’s experience with mastery of a given exercise is the only way to move ahead. It was precisely to avoid the pitfalls of more baroque systems common in his own day that Bardon preferred an experimental, infinitely personalized, and relatively simple approach which could be elaborated upon as much as the individual needed. In point of fact, both PME and KTQ are nonessential examples of such elaboration — which some will find to be helpful or even necessary for higher progress, and others will not need or may even experience as extravagant obstacles. This, too, parallels the way things are done in the Nath sampradāya, and this parallel is illustrative: a Guru will guide some chelas to the study of astrology, others to complex ritual magic, yet others to physical yogas, and on and on. Such guidance for one person does not mean that the same practices will be equally useful, or even useful at all, for everyone else, and the same Guru may even guide most or all students away from a practice given as necessary to another. A one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual development is as unwise as one-size-fits-all healthcare and it is for this reason that lodge, school, and church structures are incapable of granting access to the depths of esotericism.

I hope that all of the above points will be taken in the spirit in which they are intended. I really do think that Franz Bardon has left us with one of the handful of most remarkable, balanced, and flexible modes of inner training available without a qualified Guru. I think it’s a great thing that there is a growing community of practitioners who wish to share enthusiasm and encouragement in the Work, and that there are people who have been there before willing to connect with those coming up after them. But as such affiliations grow, it is important to be aware of shortcomings and stumbling blocks as they arise and before they can become deep-set diseases. Each individual must ultimately think for themselves in order to know, become independent in service to will, boldly experiment to dare, and to keep silent in order to build the inner pressure required to push ever deeper inward.

Of the Limitlessness of Magic

There is an epidemic: magicians who don’t believe in magic. This takes many forms, from Western ritualists who don’t understand even the rudiments of astrology upon which most Western ritual magic is founded to activists who think that magic is just performance art, from witches who think it’s a fashion statement to Crowley fans who think it’s all psychoanalysis with fancy costumes—it’s a plague of missing the point. For the most part, I don’t care. People will do what they want to do, and usually do what makes them feel good regardless of how much good it actually does. Those who crave something deeper, however, will often find themselves stuck in these whirlpools of occult stagnation simply because that’s how they’ve been taught and don’t know of alternatives. I’ve seen too many promising students simply retreat back to normality because nothing they’d read or been given worked.

Even worse, the occult world is filled to overflowing with well-educated, intellectual, pop culturally aware magicians with perfectly acceptable political views—in short, utterly respectable people who are more concerned with looking respectable than they are with challenging themselves or the boundaries of the structures around them. Prioritizing social acceptability and cultural relevance over looking into dark corners and knowing wonders does not an esoteric adventurer make.

I normally do not discuss my own experiences with these things in public, and very rarely even in private. I take that tired old “To Keep Silent” thing pretty seriously, besides which it generally does no good for anybody to talk details. I’m momentarily breaking that rule, however, because I want to remind you that weird things happen. This isn’t the most impressive such tale, nor is it presented as evidence or proof of anything; it is an anecdote intended to illustrate that while these practices may be primarily mental in nature, the power unleashed thereby is not therefore all in our heads.

Years ago, I purchased a sword to use in my magical practice. I was doing some work at the time as a diviner and healer, and so needed to have my magical toolkit as full as possible for any eventuality and had to replace my last sword for an assortment of reasons. I went looking with certain criteria in mind: it had to be simple in design, full tang, balanced enough not to be awkward in my hand, and hypothetically usable as an actual weapon. The one I purchased was very blunt-edged, but able to be sharpened. I was alright with that at the time because I didn’t want my cat hurting herself on it in my one-room living arrangement.

I had been working through the evocation practices of Franz Bardon’s Practice of Magical Evocation at the same time and was at the point of going through the elemental realms and making allies in each of them, evoking said allies to visible appearance one at a time to fully integrate the forces of the elements on every level. I decided then to use the opportunity of evoking a particular elemental lord with whom I had made contact for the consecration of my new sword. The ritual went particularly well, lasting no more than an hour; I carried out my evocation according to my usual rubric and, having place the sword in the area of manifestation in advance, requested that great spirit to “bless and empower the sword in the name of the Most High and Most Inward God that it may serve me in all operations of magic henceforth”, etc. So far, so good.

Having concluded the operation, I ensured that the spirit had returned from whence I had invited him, closed the temple down and took a few minutes of rest before packing everything away inside my altar cabinet. As I took up the sword to return it to its leather scabbard for storage, I noticed that something had changed. Most immediately, it felt lighter in my hand. This being a purely subjective thing, I assumed that it was just my brain responding to the preceding ritual action but then, as I looked at the blade to guide it home, I noticed something a touch more dramatic: it was no longer blunt!

As the sword had never left the corner in which I stored my altar and magical supplies in my loft room, I was left to understand that the edge of my sword had been sharpened at some time during the ritual of evocation. 

Once again, I do not offer this anecdote as proof, for no anecdote can be proof to another of anything and to the individual supplying the story only insofar as it proves that an experience was had. I supply it, however, as an example, however minor, that the forces we work with in spiritual practice of any sort (magical, theurgic, alchemical, meditative, or whatever) are not mere psychological complexes with no relation beyond symbolic with the world around us. The psychological aspects of these forces do exist, and are generally those with which we have the most direct relationships; if, however, we take seriously the fundamental esoteric doctrine that we are all integrated, even if unconsciously, with the Totality, it must be that these points of psychological connection are just our first-line interfaces with a Reality able to reveal so much more of itself to us as we make ourselves open to it and are gifted with its revelations. Just as many traditions hold that gods are showings-forth of the All-in-One through a variety of faces, the spirits with which a magician forms relationships and the individual consciousness of the magician himself are also such masks. If I and every single manifest person or thing with which I interact are all Self-revelations of the deepest living Truth, how can I doubt that wonders occur?

Esoterism contra Exoteric Universalism

Quite often, when an esoteric view is expressed, the listener hears a universalist statement. We must define our terms carefully in order to clarify the point.

Universalism is the view that all religious and spiritual modalities wind up at the same salvation in the end, regardless of differences and distinctions in character or application. This is popularly expressed as “all religions are basically the same” or, with somewhat more sophistication, “all paths lead to the same goal.”

Esoterism is a focus on the way in which any given religion or spiritual modality may be turned inward upon itself so that the individual practitioner may also turn inward upon himself. Esoterism is the sum of mysticism, gnosis, and magic—what the author of Meditations on the Tarot refers to as Hermetic philosophy or what Schuon calls Perennial Philosophy or Traditional Metaphysics.

Esoterism states that the possibility of inwardness exists in principle in any authentic religious or spiritual tradition while acknowledging that it is more difficult to access in some than in others, sometimes considerably so to the point of practical impossibility. A religion may be called spiritually alive insofar as this possibility is actualized in the persons of living representatives of that tradition.

An esoterist will certainly focus on the practice of a particular tradition but, unlike the purely exoteric (outward) religionist, will not be uncomfortable with taking lessons from or even engaging in the practices of a genuinely living religion or spiritual tradition. What works, works. To put it more concretely: A Yogi who has, even for the briefest moment, touched the feet of God will feel no discomfort in the magical application of the Psalms. Game recognize game.