The Magic Circle: Its Functions & Applications

There is no occult tool or esoteric symbol more ubiquitous and well-known than the magic circle. It is found everywhere from famous poetry to popular fiction, and is usually associated with the summoning of demons or the spirits of the dead for some nefarious purpose. This, of course, is due to the infinitely greater social and economic hunger for sensationalism than for reality, but it at least almost guarantees that just about everyone who has ever read a novel involving an evil wizard will at least have heard of the concept. Magicians of all stripes are quick to point out the importance of a proper magic circle in many types of magical practice, yet relatively little has been written about the precise purpose, make-up, and meaning of the circle. With this article, I seek to add my own contribution, however minor, to the available resources.

Perhaps due to the aforementioned lack of accessible literature on the subject, there are a lot of misconceptions even among those who call themselves magicians. From the amateur practitioner who will be hard-pressed to get beyond the most basic forms of practice without this information, to the experienced sorcerer who insists that the circle is an unnecessary accretion resulting from Judeo-Christian fears of spirits, there are a lot of ways to misconstrue the circle’s significance. Making the situation even more complex is the fact that there is not just one magic circle. I do not mean the many possible physical forms it may take — from the many kinds inscribed with symbols of all sorts and supposed to be made from various (usually expensive) materials found in common grimoires, to one roughly scratched into dirt or drawn with chalk — though these do make the question even more difficult, at first. I am instead referring to the fact that the magic circle is a dramatically different animal in the hands (and, more importantly, in the minds) of practitioners at different levels of the Art.

What follows is my own vocabulary; as far as I know, nobody else has written about these distinctions in precisely this way. I have chosen the terms for precision, though it must be said at the outset that the division of ideas here is not always as clear or hard-line as the application of such terms may make it seem. My intention is not to divide all practitioners or their constructs up into three completely exclusive groupings, but to present the three major coordinates along a single continuum. With that preface, let’s explore.

 

Sorcery is often used coterminously with magic. But sorcery is not quite the same thing; it is formulaic in nature, basically magic done without a real understanding of the underlying laws, principles, and forces. It would be just as reasonable to call this “witchcraft”, though given the specific connotations that word has taken on among occultists in recent decades, I prefer to call this sort of ignorant tampering “sorcery”. “There is no ‘black magic’, but rather sorcerers groping in the dark. They grope in the dark because the light of gnosis and mysticism is lacking.” (Meditations on the Tarot, corrected edition 2002 Tarcher/Putnam, pg. 43)

We need look no further than the popular grimoires to see the function of magic circles in the context of sorcery. Inscribed with unexplained symbols and signs, and usually with corrupted kabbalistic or Grecco-Egyptian words and names of power, these circles are presented as indispensable protection against the demonic powers to be called up from the depths. In fact, this is quite true. To attempt a goetic evocation without such divine protection will almost certainly result in complete failure, and if any “success” is had, it will definitely be of a very dangerous sort. The sorcerer’s circle is nothing more than a barrier, a line drawn in the sand (sometimes literally) between the sorcerer and the particular force or intelligence which he hopes to make his slave.

Of course, very few modern attempts at this sort of formulaic evocation come to much because most contemporary sorcerers lack the one essential element which makes not only the circle effective, but all other elements of the experiment as well: belief. Of course the modern sorcerer has some basic belief that magic works, or else why bother in the first place? But how many of them get the spectacular phenomena promised in the grimoires? These results are not impossible, but they do rely on what Joseph Lisiewski called “subjective synthesis”. (Ceremonial Magic & The Power of Evocation, 2008 New Falcon Publications) This synthesis is simply the sum total of the sorcerer’s belief in all of the individual elements of the ritual to be performed; this is why, traditionally, there is a long period of training and preparation which generally involves daily prayers of purification, attending Mass and taking the consecrated Host, etc. Sorcery almost requires involvement in some established, organized religion. This faithful involvement provides the sorcerer with three essential elements: discipline, a preexisting context and core beliefs upon which to build the subjective synthesis, and the protection of a powerful egregore. Without all of these, the use of systems of sorcery derived from the grimoires (which describes nearly all of Western ceremonial and ritual magic) is a simple impossibility, and these preconditions can only be met with a firm faith over against the “sophistication” of thoroughgoing skepticism found in most post-modernist approaches to magic popular since Aleister Crowley put pen to paper.

The sorcerer’s magic circle is then a spacial delimitation of the sorcerer’s own sense of purity in accordance to his adherence to his religion. It is an external barrier empowered not by the sorcerer himself, but by the egregore to which he is attached and with which he identifies. A Catholic summoner is pure by his Baptism, has authority by his Anointing, and is protected by his Communion, and this whole edifice, however subjective, must be externalized in the form of his circle inscribed with the names of archangels and made ready by aspersion in order for the whole internal structure to be efficacious.

It is a different story for the magician — the practitioner who has come to know something of the real workings and relationships of the forced made use of in magic — and the theurgist — who has more or less mastered these forces. The magician does not require protection so much as isolation; for him, the circle is a sterile laboratory to be filled only with a single force or mixture of forces, and only to the precise point of saturation. It is a miniature cosmos which represents the inner cosmos being built up within the magician himself, and strictly under his control. William G. Gray has it that “[to] construct a Magic Circle is to create Inner Cosmos according to Intention.” More:

Naturally the individual ability of the operator is a decisive factor, upon which the efficacious degree of any circle depends. Circles do not put themselves together without a directing will, whether they are Cosmic creations of a Divinity, or the personal cosmoi of human beings, both of which a genuine Magic Circle should intersect.” (Inner Traditions of Magic, 1984 Samuel Weiser, Inc., pg 124)

Franz Bardon makes the point similarly:

The drawing of a circle symbolizes the Divinity in Its perfection, to come into contact with the Divinity, namely when the magician stands in the center of the circle, whereby, symbolically expressed, the connection with the Divinity is graphically represented. For the magician it is a connection with the macrocosm on the highest level of his consciousness. It is therefore completely logical from the point of view of true magic for the magician to stand in the center of a magic circle with the awareness of being at One with his universal divinity. This clearly shows that the magic circle is not only a diagram for protection against undesirable influences, but it also expresses untouchability and unassailability as a result of connecting one’s consciousness with the Highest. Therefore, a magician who stands in the center of a magic circle is protected from all influences, be they good or evil, because he symbolizes the Divinity in the universe. Besides, a magician who stands in a circle is God himself in the microcosm, who rules the beings which are created in the universe and he is the one who exercises his absolute powers.” (The Practice of Magical Evocation, translated by Dieter Rüggeberg, 2001 Merkur Publishing, pp 22 & 23)

In both cases, what is central is not merely the magician’s human knowledge of the inner forces, but his operative identity with the Deity. Bardon emphasizes this identity, while Gray stresses the necessity of an intersection between the magician’s cosmos and the Deity’s Cosmos. In other words, the magician needs to be careful lest his cosmos lack proper correspondence to the world. The reason for this is twofold.

First is that the purpose of magic is not to escape reality, but to interact with it as intimately as possible. We can only do this if our inner worlds and the outer world correspond to one another. Second is that, in order for the worlds to directly interact with one another, that correspondence is a strict precondition; if we wish to make changes in the outer world, we must begin with a model of that world and restructure said model accordingly. The more exactly the worlds correspond in the first place, the more effectively will the modifications be able to manifest between one plane and another. God works from subtle to gross, and so must we. The height of theurgy comes when the inner world more or less exactly reflects the outer world, down to details, at which point changes made to the inner world will flow quite naturally to the outer.

But, in order for any of this to be possible in the first place, the magician must construct the sterile chamber of experiments. In the same section quoted above, Gray refers to the magic circle as the Zero from which comes the All. Before the interior of the cosmos may be populated, there must first be made a space, relatively empty. This śunya, or void, is not absolutely empty — for ontologically speaking there is no such thing as “nothing” — but is empty relative to God’s Fullness. (Of course, this conception may be flipped, as in the case of Buddhism, Abrahamic apophatic theology, and Śaiva Siddhānta, in which the Absolute is the Void insofar as the Ground of Being is unrecognizable to our minds and senses.) Now is not the time to get into all of the elements of ritual magic and their uses and implications, but it is useful here to mention that if the magic circle is the śunya, the magician’s own will and intention serves as the bindu, or point, at its center which gives us the following diagram:

Sol

This, of course, is the astrological and alchemical symbol of Sol, our sun. The entire symbol is not intended to signify the Sun, but only the point in the center; the circumference represents the solar system, or the sphere of Sol’s direct influence. The whole thing is a diagram of Sol, his radiation, and his gravitation. So it is with the magician, who stands at the center of his own cosmos both emitting the force of will and drawing in those powers which cannot resist the inexorable pull of his dynamism. However, in order for any of this to be possible, there must first be a space made which the magician may then fill with the desired influences, and that is the magician’s circle.

Physically speaking, the magician’s circle may take literally any shape. As it is only acting as a psychic “clean zone”, the simpler it is the better it will play its part. The complicated inscriptions of the sorcerer are unnecessary, and may only serve as a distraction. Whatever action is taken for the circle’s consecration — aspersion with holy water, anointing with oil or other substances, prayers and invocations, etc. — are taken for their esoteric (i.e. inward) value, rather than their exoteric religious significance. Though the magician still requires his “subjective synthesis”, his is more plastic than the sorcerer’s, adaptable to gradual shifts and tweaks toward new ends. As such, his physical circle serves only as a visual reminder and conceptual anchor of his place and role.

 

As we have seen, the definition of these circles is largely a function of the practitioner’s relationship to the forces with which he or she is experimenting. Those for whom the inner forces behave as largely external require protection; those who know the forces to be inward, but still require some degree of externalization require isolation; but, finally, those who know and experience the forces entirely inwardly — whose laboratory has been perfectly integrated — require concentration. These are the alchemists.

The business of the alchemist, whether working with plant and mineral in the outer laboratory or with himself in the inner laboratory, is the concentration and transformation of substance for the release of essence. The alchemist has already integrated all of the forces or, more precisely, has located those forces within himself; he has also mastered the isolation and focusing of those forces. What remains is to concentrate them and, ultimately, sublimate them. The purpose of the alchemist’s circle is hinted at very directly in the diagram of the Umbra Zonule Meditation (the circle structure of the International Nath Order), the upper right hand corner of which displays an alchemist’s retort. (Shri Gurudev Mahendranath, The Londinium Temple Strain, 2002 electronic edition, http://www.mahendranath.org/, pg 9) The retort is an egg-shaped bottle with a tube spout which swoops downward and away from the bottle; a fluid boiled in the retort condenses against the top of the tube spout and runs down into another vessel at the bottom. (See image below.)

Retort

(Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language of 1908, http://www.gutenberg.org/)

 

This tool of laboratory alchemy when used in reference to “inner alchemy” represents the process of concentrating substances by removing what is nonessential from them. The Śaiva symbol for this process is the vel or spear of Lord Murugan, which hones in precisely on the heart of whatever it pierces. The idea of “concentration” thus comes into play in two ways to refer to the same notion: finding the essence within a substance.

The alchemist’s circle, then, is no longer an external barrier at all, but more the representation of a process. The alchemist may visualize a circle around him and his meditation and worship space during focused times of operation, but that is only an aid. The circle representing the practitioner’s identity with the Divinity is now experienced as being not different from one’s own Heart or Center; the circle of Zero (śunya) and the point of One (bindu) are understood to be identical. In terms of Yoga, the goal is now to realize this by uniting Śakti with Śiva at the crown. Again, Murugan’s vel shows the way, as the upward-pointed spear’s tip rests just at the crown of the head, its hilt running the length of the spine. To return to the astrological diagram of Sol, we learn that the point in the center is the practitioner’s spinal column as viewed from above.

 

My readers can see that I have chosen to use largely Western terms to define the magic circle and the stage of practice which they represent. This is not because those are the only appropriate words, but because they are the most familiar to most occultists, and because the Eastern literature already has its own deep examinations of this topic.

We may see in the sorcerer, magician, and alchemist, for instance, the Śaivite phases of caryā, kriyā, and yoga. One in the phase of caryā requires all of the traditions of ritual worship, moral commandments and ethical guidelines, and other externalities. This is not a bad thing, but a set of necessary prerequisites to deeper work. One in kriyā still makes use of these tools, but sees them now as means and methods for achieving a profounder participation in the Divine Work by way of living symbols and continual reorientation of self-identity. The Yogi — in a sense, one is a Yogi the whole way through, but is only fully and deliberately engaged in the process of Reintegration during this third phase — is able to fully integrate all of the symbols previously externalized. In caryā, the sacrificial fire is more or less literal, and kriyā it is an outward symbol of the inner Flame; in Yoga, there is so little distinction between outward fire and inward Flame that only the Flame itself is necessary (though a fire may still be used when it is necessary to communicate the processes to others, especially those in the caryā and kriyā stages.) As to the circle itself, it may take the forms of circles of chains of practitioners, mandalas large enough to sit inside of, or the simple act of taking āsana.

None of the earlier phases are abandoned. The higher does not sublate the lower, but integrates it, recontextualizes it, and maintains its value as a teaching tool and aid to advancement. Eventually, the plant whose roots are caryā, whose stalk is kriyā, and whose leaf and branch are yoga, blossoms as jñana (gnosis) which ripens as the fruit of mokșa (liberation). In the fruit resides the entirety of the plant in seed form, root to flower. These seeds may be planted by the initiating preceptor in the muck of the student’s mind, that the lotus will grow therefrom. And so goes Reintegration.

 

Here we have the Triple Circle of the Art. In one sense, the Outer Circle is alchemy, in that it contains the other two; in another sense, the Outer Circle is sorcery, in that it is the most exoteric among them. Ultimately, the three are One, as the true Circle of Art does not permit of divisions, but in practice we may distinguish between them as phases of a single process. As Draja Mickaharic so wisely wrote:

Being a magician is a stage in the process of developing spiritually. It is not the height of development; in fact, it is only a step in the first part of the range of real human development. The fact that many religious sects speak and act harshly against those who have the ability to practice magic is most revealing of the true character of the leaders heading those religions. Those whom they speak against may be more developed spiritually than the so-called religious people who speak against them! (Practice of Magic, 1995 Samuel Weiser, Inc., page iiiv of the Introduction)

Likewise, we can say that while we may not be able to recommend the practice of sorcery, it is often a stepping stone into genuine theurgy, which itself leads us to alchemy. There is but one Way, but many ways may bring us to it.

In practice, the magic circle manifests the magician’s own internal process, its power and function depending entirely upon the individual’s degree of attainment. It is the one indispensable magical tool, no matter the form it takes, because it truly represents the practitioner’s own Heart.

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Books That Blew My Mind: “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”

[In] the case of intellectual intuition, knowledge is not possessed by the individual insofar as he is an individual, but insofar as in his innermost essence he is not distinct from his Divine Principle. Thus metaphysical certitude is absolute because of the identity between the knower and the known in the Intellect. ~ Frithjof Schuon

By the time I stumbled into Frithjof Schuon, I had been reading into esoteric practice from various angles for a long while. Yet, somehow, I had almost entirely missed the Traditionalist/Perennialist approach. When reading Huston Smith’s memoir, Tales of Wonder, the author mentioned his own initial run-in with Schuon’s work, dropping the title The Transcendent Unity of Religions as his first foray. Despite Smith’s warning that the book is deceptively difficult for its page count, I immediately ordered myself a copy and excitedly began to read as soon as it got to me.

For those unfamiliar with him, it needs to be said that Schuon is a very difficult writer, whether one is reading one of his English volumes, or a translation into English. This is not because he is a bad writer. In fact, the complexity of his subject matter is such that I am inclined to say that he is one of the greatest essayists who ever set pen to paper! It is that very complexity which can make his books slow going. But, by God, are they worth the time and effort. The Transcendent Unity of Religions struck me the same way René Guénon’s books struck a young Schuon: “At last, a man who sees it the very way I do!” may have been words spoken, once in German and once in English, separated by decades, yet converging in a single instant of recognition, eyes locking across a gulf of eternity’s mercy. I was refreshed, exhilarated, and exhausted by the read (and constant backtracking, to make sure I was following).

The sophistication of the metaphysical observation made again and again throughout Schuon’s catalog is astounding, yet altogether obvious for a man or woman of a certain intellectual temperament. There is no attempt at making the shallow claim that all religions are identical, nor even the more interesting but equally wrong claim that they all make use of the same moral lessons and methods to reach the same Goal. He instead recognizes the distinction between exoteric religion and esoteric Dharma. Though the esoteric paradoxically transcends the exoteric — in the sense that practitioners of exoteric religion may be permitted, as the fruit of their sincere growth of character and worship, into the Holy of Holies — it must anchor itself to the world, and to humanity, by way of the formalisms of religion. It is thus that Sanatana Dharma, or sophia perennis, is seen as the transcendent-immanent Law and Wisdom that it is, while the revealed faiths of the world are given their place as gateways which may lead us inward to meet it. It is thus not at the level of name and form that the religions converge — often in fact opposing one another in necessary, though contingent, ways on this plane. Rather, it is only at the Heights of verticality (or the Depths of inwardness) that they become transcended, and, having gone beyond them in their limited forms, that they find their Goal in the Self or Divinity.

It is this point which liberal universalists and religious partisans miss alike. To the religious partisans, we may say that it is worthless to argue over who has the monopoly on Truth, as Truth defies merely mental and sentimental attempts at codification. To the universalists, we retort that we are well within our rights to defend our religions against assaults from outside and to stick closely to our traditional practices, for it is only thus that we retain our centrality — our humanity, in the fullest sense. In either case, we assert that the revelations and religions of the world cannot be understood “academically”, from the outside, but that Tradition-as-such can only be understood from inside a tradition. Similarly, religious traditions cannot be merely cannibalized for “techniques”; they are not golems or robots, but organically grown, distinct “personalities” unto themselves and, just as with animals, to analyze is to kill. Out of the killing ignorance, both mistakes arise naturally and inevitably, yet we must avoid falling into them ourselves.

Not much of this was news to me upon reading Schuon for the first time, but finally I did not feel quite so isolated in the observation and, just as importantly, I now had language with which to speak of it! Aside from this one overarching metaphysic, however, Schuon delves deeply into the esoterics of religious doctrine and practice and surfaces with treasures of the Intellect which take many lifetimes to discover for oneself. These lessons have had just as much impact upon me over time, and each re-reading of a Schuon book brings fresh rewards.

For as much as I love The Transcendent Unity of Religions, I probably should have listened to Huston Smith and gone with one of his other books first. With that in mind, if you’ve never read Frithjof Schuon before, and you want a good place to start, please allow me to suggest you begin with either Language of the Self or Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism.

Neuroscience & Panpsychism, some notes

The overwhelming misfortune of humanity is not that we are ignorant of the existence of truth, but that we misconstrue its nature. What errors and what sufferings would have been spared us if, far from seeking truth in the phenomena of material nature, we had resolved to descend into ourselves and had sought to explain material things by our own being, and not our being by material things – if, fortified by courage and patience, we had preserved in the calm of our imagination the discovery of this light which we desire all of us with so much ardor. ~ Louis-Claude de St-Martin

A friend of mine asked me to read this interview from Wired Magazine, concerning a neuroscientist’s interpretation of panpsychism and his views on how consciousness arises in the brain and other complex integrated information systems, and give him my thoughts on it. Instead of just shooting off a text message, I wanted to write my thoughts down in a slightly more fleshed-out form. While still basically just notes, here are those thoughts as they occurred to me. For the record, I am not a neuroscientist; further, I deeply respect what neuroscientists do, even if I do not always agree with their (admittedly tentative) conclusions. I am thus sharing these thoughts out of interest in the topic, and not any claim to expertise.

First thought: I love how things which Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Hermetists, Platonists, and other contemplatives have known for, literally, millennia are called “new” and “radical” and “revolutionary” when a physicist or neuroscientist says them with a lab coat on, but when a mystic says them wearing a dhoti, a robe, or a nice pair of jeans and fitted t-shirt, they’re dismissed as “delusion” or “irrational”. It’s all in having the right uniform.

Next thought: This is an interesting interview, and Koch’s hypothesis is an important one. From the perspective of a contemplative, however, it is incomplete. Koch still relies on the threadbare assumption of reductionism: that consciousness somehow arises from matter. This belief is based on the metaphysical assumption that there is no metaphysic, which is rather self-defeating. Rather than consciousness “arising” from integrated information systems, I would say that integrated information systems are the material structures which most efficiently permit of conscious experience within the matrix of matter.

According to Samkhya and Yoga, matter is just the grossest phase of Prakrti (roughly, “Nature” and “Substance”), while Purusha (“Consciousness”, “Spirit”, “the Essence of Personhood”) exists, in a sense, separately. They mix and mingle in the form of cosmoi, but Purusha is never truly native to Prakrti and, thus, to matter. Consciousness can thus be separated from matter, but this does not end consciousness; rather, the breaking-down of a complex integrated system represents the elimination of a single vertex of mingled consciousness and matter. While it is far from perfect, it is helpful here to remember the common metaphor of brain-as-radio receiver; if you take a hammer to your radio, you do not thus destroy the signal, but only the tool by which you experienced it. The difference is that, in the case of consciousness and the brain, the “experience” goes both ways. The “signal” is not a product merely transmitted, but is itself the substrate-independent essence of experience-as-such; cut off the receiver, and it may appear to the outsider as if the signal itself has disappeared, but all that has happened is that it no longer has a ready medium of communication.

Koch briefly mentions his interest in Buddhism, and uses the vaguely Platonic term “panpsychism”, but has fallen into a common trap in the modern West of believing that Buddhism, Platonism, and the like, can somehow be extricated or rescued from their spiritual contexts. Not only is this not possible  a reductionist Buddhism is not Buddhism at all it is not desirable, for it undercuts the very element which makes a methodology like Buddhism capable of teaching us anything significant. In short, it removes the method from the methodology. A deeper study and practice of Bauddhadharma would, I think, be every bit as valuable to Koch in the development of his hypothesis as his neuroscience research itself.

The Meaning of The Devil

The finest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” ~ Charles Baudelaire, “Le Joueur généreux”

Demons abound in the world’s mythologies. We could argue all day about whether that is a reflection of our own ambivalent moral lives, an observation of the actual moral order of psychic and spiritual forces, or both (I am more inclined to this last option), but that lies beyond my present scope. The fact is that we all know something, however little, of our own culture’s demonology, and this imagery has stuck with us for a reason.

Hindus often say that we do not have the notion of Satan, one of several major points brought to distinguish dharmic from Abrahamic thought. Of course this is true, as far as it goes, but the comparison often lacks a metaphysical explanation. Who, or what, is Satan after all?

Hindu and Buddhist demonology is naturally a reflection of dharmic theology. That is to say, in short, that just as the Divine and angelic forces — not to mention the purely “natural” forces, such as the bhutas and ganas — appear in and through a multiplicity of forms, so do the demonic. More, demons are not seen to be essentially evil, but contingently so; the devas, mythologically (and, thus, symbolically), display occasional slips of self-awareness and self-control, while asuras are characterized by them. There have famously been asuras who were able to gather themselves enough to perform great austerities, but clung so tightly to their own little egos that they traded away all of the merit so earned for physical immortality and other occult powers of comfort and self-aggrandizement.

This entire point can be summarized by saying that the asuras lack a sense of underlying Unity. Devas know of the Reality to Whom they owe their existence, and intentionally place themselves in service of It; the nature spirits and goblins recognize and worship It. Even most humans have the excuse of generally being unaware of God’s presence. The asuras alone hold the dubious distinction of being aware of divine omnipresence, and yet being too proud of egocentric to see It as anything more than a cosmic vending machine.

We might then say that the asuras parody the devas; likewise, Christian theology holds that “the Devil is the ape of God.” Of course, one might posit the obvious: that the asuras have no underlying Unity, but the Abrahamic demons do in the person of Satan, making them irreconcilably different demonologies. This, however, is only so if we begin with the assumption of irreconcilable metaphysics. The divine law behind all revealed metaphysics, however, is only One, and only a bit of work with the buddhic Intellect will find us the conceptual bridge.

While making methodological allowances for the human need of a personal God and the ontological privilege of the relative as such, Hinduism places metaphysical emphasis on the Absolute. With the exception of Islam — which simply and succinctly emphasizes the relationship of the relative to the Absolute by way of its central doxology — the Abrahamic faiths are exoterically concerned with Whom Schuon calls the Relative-Absolute, the logoic-demiurgic Lord of the Creation. In other words, Christians and Jews focus their worship at the personal God, while the dharmic traditions either aim directly for the Absolute God, or else recognize the relative as gateway to the Absolute even at the level of exoterism.

The vision of exoteric Christianity — for this entire discussion must, to some degree, focus on the exoteric or, at any rate, the formal, as the only venue in which the influence of demonic forces is especially relevant — is limited not just by the notion of metaphysical distance (radical dualism of individual soul and God), but also by metaphysical assumptions about time. The Abrahamic faiths have tightly constrained views of time, with definite beginning and end to history, priority to the creation of humanity, and so forth, because they emphasize the relationship of relative creation (relativity-of-forms) to the Relative-Absolute (the personal Lord) and are, as soteriological strategems, aimed precisely at providing vehicles of Grace in the Age of Darkness. I will have more to say on this in a future article on Genesis, but for the present purpose it is enough to say that the Judeo-Christian creation myth is mostly about the salvation history not of the entire world, but of a specific “human world”, namely the Middle East and what we today call the West from the dawn of the Kali Yuga. It is, in short, the poetic description of a dawn on an existing world, not the birth of a new planet.

The theology which arises from this metaphysic must be limited by these same factors, and the resultant demonology must likewise reflect it. If the God of Abraham is the Lord of a dark age, He must stand in opposition to those forces which arise in such a time of darkness — that is to say, demons. With darkness appearing to be in the ascendant, it is without irony that Jesus and Saint Paul can call the head of demons the Prince of this world, the Archon (Governor), etc., and even the Prince of the Powers of the Air — a poetic way of calling him the usurper of the astral throne of the law-giver, known as Zeus, Indra, El, or Yahweh.

In the astrological application of Vedic mythologems, the demonic leader is dual: Rahu, the lion-head separated from its body, and Ketu, the serpent body without its lion’s head. The similarity to the Gnostic vision of the Archon is quite striking, and may hint at either a Vedic influence on early Hermetic and Christian mythologies, or else a parallelism in metaphysical insight, or both. Jewish Kabbalah also places a divided being at the head of the demonic hordes: Thaumiel, according to some kabbalistic schools, is the crowning intelligence of the “Tree of Death”, the diagram of the relationships of evil forces. “Thaumiel” itself translates as “twins of God” or, perhaps, “twin gods”, and represents the dualistic and adversarial activity of the demonic. Other forces on the Tree of Death include Ogiel (Hinderers), Satariel (Concealers), Gash’khalah (Breakers-in-Pieces), Tagirion (Litigation), Orev Zarak (Ravens of Dispersion), and Samael (False Accuser); again, each of these is more than a hint toward the dualism and combative or subversive behavior of evil. Compare with the Old Testament “Satan”, which means “the Opposer”, and the English “Devil”, which comes from the Greek “diabolos” — “slanderer” or “accuser” — and we see the same theme.

Dualism — characterized mythologically as “knowledge of good and evil” and distinction of “nakedness” before a God now see as separate and external — is the “original sin”, the seed of Kali Yuga. It manifests in the individual soul as the ego, the very sense of “I-ness” opposed to “thou-ness” and “that-ness”. While not strictly evil in itself, it is that which permits of evil. And, as each soul has an ego as the sub-unit of individuality, so does the universe possess something of a corresponding “sense of self-identity”.

The Lord, as the Oversoul, is the very Soul of the Universe — Puruṣa of Samkhya and Yoga. The individual ego is something of an odd hybrid of Consciousness and matter in the form of the body-mind complex. Given that the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm, there must be some analogy to the ego on the cosmic scale. While the Lord cannot be said to have an ego, least of all to be possessed by that ego, that is only because He is perfectly aware of His ultimate identity with the Absolute and, thus, is not subject to karma or its fruits. Yet the universe itself is subject thereto as it is, in fact, the very engine of action and its fruits. If the personal God is the Intelligence of Unity-in-relativity, there must be a corresponding vector for duality or disunity. And this intelligence or cosmic ego we may as well call the Devil.

Now, the largest part of dharmic objection to the notion of Satan — apart, that is, from the misguided efforts of missionaries to brand the Hindu devas as demons to undermine Hinduism and gain converts — is that the Absolute cannot have opposition. How can the All-in-All have an enemy if nothing can truly be other than It?

The forces of involution and crystalization, the very forces which created a universe of matter and which brought Consciousness to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth within that universe, are the same forces which allow for the solidification of individual identity; metaphysical gravitation is the cause of each little “I”. Ultimately, this is a necessary part of the whole process of manifestation. It is also, however, the force of sin and evil, insofar as the activity of any natural law is perceived to be evil by those intelligent beings striving in the opposite direction. As gravity is evil to the exhausted rock climber or training airline pilot, so is involution inimical to the one who looks heavenward with longing. To the Hindu, with her much broader view of time, this enmity is provisional, situational; to the Abrahamic monotheist, however, it looks much more dire and directly adversarial. With history limited to a few thousand years — again, just a single world-age — and each individual concerned with just a single lifetime’s reverberations, any adversity at all takes on the visage of monstrosity, cruelty, and willful corruption. The urgency of this metaphysic is predicated on a genuine sense of the need to rely wholly on grace; the Abrahamics are, at their core, paths of bhakti tailored to this Age of Conflict.

The idea of Satan as coequal with God is a popular and admittedly fear-mongering misinterpretation. Traditionally, Satan is a temporary problem, at worst, destined for ultimate defeat. Again, this is all speaking to the Age. When darkness and strife seem to be in power, when ignorance abounds, and ungodliness is the norm, the powers which allow for such things seem to be both evil and threateningly strong. Hence, the Devil is also known as the “Ruler of the present Age”. But it must be re-emphasized that God’s Grace trumps all the forces of sin; thus, at the “end of time” — again, the end of the age in which we live — there will be a “new Heaven and new Earth”, which is to say a renowned Sat Yuga, or Age of Truth.

Of course, the exoteric Christian will not accept the foregoing discussion for, as Huston Smith points out, “a portion of the esoteric position being obscured from him, he cannot honor it without betraying the truth he does see.” (Introduction to the revised edition of Frithjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions, pg xvi) But, as far as it goes, that isn’t an absolutely bad thing, as the Way of Grace must be open, in this Age more than any other, to one and all according to their constitutional needs. But the figure of Satan stands as one of metaphysical, if strictly relative, necessity in the scheme of salvation by substitutional atonement of Christianity, as well as that of perfect surrender to God’s will in Islam. Jesus and Muhammad, each in his way, provides the model for salvation in God; the Devil provides the model of imprisonment in the limits of our own small personalities.

This leads us, finally, to the well-known, but extra-biblical, story of the Fall of Lucifer. It is surprising for many, even life-long Christians, to discover that at no point does this myth appear in the Bible. It is hard to say precisely to wear and when it may be traced; elements of Prometheus are there alongside distinctly Judeo-Christian ideas, and many more besides. It is found in its fullest development, of course, in Milton’s wonderful Paradise Lost, though it seems to have been popular well before then. For those not familiar, here is the basic outline:

At some point in the distant past, the Devil was an angel of God; it is said that he is called “Lucifer”, the Light-bearer, because he was originally God’s most luminous angel. He eventually got it into his mind to rebel against God. Some versions have Lucifer deciding that he is superior to God, and attempting to usurp His power; other versions, such as Paradise Lost, have Lucifer’s pride being hurt by God’s demand that the angels minister to newly-created humanity. In either case, Lucifer’s self-importance sways a large swath of the angelic host to follow him into battle against those angels who remain loyal (usually lead by Michael, whose name means “God-like”). They are handily defeated, cast out of Heaven and into a place constructed specifically to contain them away from God’s light: Hell. This, though again not in the Bible, is the commonly-believed origin story of the Christian Devil even among many esoteric theologians.

Though often romanticized as the story of the first free-thinker, it is important to note that the central theme is of egotism on the largest possible scale, and at the highest possible order. Lucifer finds himself, in whichever version of the story one chooses, unwilling to do the work of enlightenment for which he is especially well-suited. He is thus cast from the heavenly Light of which he is composed into the infernal fire. This immediately brings to mind the esoteric Islamic doctrine that Hell’s fire is nothing but God’s Light upon meeting egoic resistance; in other words, the fire of Hell is simply the working of the human will in opposition to God’s Grace, and is either quenched by devotional surrender, or else burns until there is no more fuel to burn (i.e., the ego is no more). The Hindu parallel is that of tapas, a word usually translated as “austerities” or “penance”, but which literally means “fire”; tapas is the process of sacrificing our own internal barriers to the internal yogic fire (agni), and it is notable that concentration, meditation, and other practices of Yoga, even in perfect physical stillness, produces a strong sensation of internal heat. So, Hell is nothing but subconscious tapas, and “escape” therefrom is constituted of engaging in tapas deliberately.

Again, the Devil in this tale provides the example of what not to do, though the scale is larger. Where the biblical Fall of Adam says something of the egotism in humanity, the Fall of Lucifer is about the individuality of the manifest universe. It is in this sense that the Sufi teaching goes: Separate existence is the only sin. Whether the personification of, or the symbol of, separate existence, the Devil is not too far removed from the Vedic asuras; it is all a matter of the size of one’s perspective. Where the Christian sees a once-for-all damnation, the Hindu sees a temporal mistake which will be righted in the course of enormous spans of a time both measurably longer and metaphysically broader than the laser-focus of its Abrahamic counterpart. The esoterist, of whichever tradition, must only remember that the Middle East and West’s linear time is contained within the spiral time of Dharma, and that all priorities shift with a glimpse of the bigger picture.

Ego in Yoga

It is a mistake to believe that the ego is strictly an enemy in the spiritual quest, and more so to believe that it is the only obstacle. As with so many things, the nuance has been washed out of this teaching as dye from cloth drying in the sunshine.

Part of the problem is that “ego” is often misidentified with “mind”. In Sāmkhya, Yoga, and Vedānta, however, the student-practitioner comes to learn from experience that these two are distinct entities. It is true that in daily life they are identified with one another (and generally with the body, as well), but much of the process of Yoga is, at first, analytical. It is necessary to discern where and when mistakes are made before they can be corrected and prevented, and this process of discernment must begin by determining where one “substance” ends and the next begins.

Patānjali opens his famous Yoga Sūtras thus: “Yoga is stilling the modifications of chitta. Then the seer abides in itself. Otherwise, the Self is identified with the modes of chitta.” (sūtras 1:2 – 4) It is not necessary, just now, to discuss the five modes of chitta, but it is important to know the sheaths through which they operate.

Chitta is none other than the stuff of consciousness; it is not consciousness itself (which is the Ātman of Vedānta and the puruṣa of Sāmkhya), but rather its reflection in the substance of Nature (prakrti). Chitta is sattvic — light, pure, and peaceful — by nature, but when perturbed by the activity of the other qualities/gunas (passion/rajas, and inertia/tamas), chitta refracts pure consciousness into three components, much as white light refracts into three primary colors. These components are not pure, so they are all a mix of the activity of the three gunas: buddhi (intellect) is the most sattvic; ahamkāra (ego) is the most tamasic; manas (mind) is the most rajasic.

Most of us, most of the time, are so mentally muddled that we simply cannot tell the difference between these three functions. We conflate emotions and sensations with our very sense of self — “I am sad,” or “I am happy” — and confuse preference or taste for discernment. So, the yogin first learns to watch himself closely, to see the movements of the mind in both general patterns and details. From here is analysis possible, whereby the sense of “I” may be separated out from thoughts and emotions.

The process then turns to one of discernment; the intellect is uncovered as the ego detaches from identification with the mind. The thoughts and sensations of the mind are then accepted or rejected according to their correspondence to reality, or else their relative usefulness. Once well-established, even this process shifts; the intellect’s job, essentially, is to bring the ego into identification with chitta itself. The entire process of analysis, discernment, and discrimination is a gradual awakening to the function of consciousness within Nature, enabling the ego to draw back to its source in chitta.

To fight against “ego” is therefore to fight against the reflection of self-awareness within individual consciousness. It is a battle which cannot be won. Ego itself is not the problem; the problem is wrong identification of “I” with anything else. Sri Ramana Maharshi taught to trace the sense of “I” to its root; the Buddha taught to discern the emptiness of the constructs which we call “I”; Patānjali taught to practice detachment from the “not-I” in order to still the modifications of chitta. These are all the same teaching, with the same goal.

None of this is to say that ego is inherently good or helpful, either. Ego is the Original Sin, the First Error, the sense of self apart from Self. Still, ego is effectively a neutral entity of mixed nature, an ersatz arising, so to speak, between Spirit and matter. As nothing more than an abstract sense of “I am,” ego’s moral and spiritual value is entirely dependent upon its point of identification. When ego says, “I am this body,” or “I am this mind,” or anything other than simply “I am,” we call this delusion. When, through the intellect’s power of discrimination, “I am” rests as “I am,” chitta is still and the illusion of individuality resolves itself.

0.

Cypher and bindu
Circle and point
The battle of Being
against Nonbeing
is at an end.
Being and Nonbeing
are not one.
There’s no such thing
as two.
Do not say
there is fullness
or void
It is a lie.
It is a lie indeed
that there is neither
fullness nor void.
“Is” has already
confounded us.
But isn’t isn’t confusing?

The Spear & The Sword: Michael, Murugan, and the Power of Slaying Demons

Murugan, Lord of Yoga, and Saint Michael, Master of Theurgy, both wield their spear against the demons who plague the progress of their votaries. But why the spear and not another weapon? From the point of view of metaphysics, the spear is the only weapon which can well and truly vanquish the satanic powers.

It may be objected that the Hermetic Michael brandishes the flaming sword of the Gate of Paradise. In point of fact, the Archangel only uses the flaming sword under certain conditions; the Hermetic images in question are not properly Hermetic, but rather occult or magical, coming as they do out of the oeuvre of the Golden Dawn with its mission of syncretic breadth rather than esoteric depth. Within the context — and strictly within the confines — of the modern West’s non-religious (not to say anti-religious, as that isn’t universal) ritual magic, St. Michael does duty as the devonic guardian of the southern portion of the sky, holding the asuric forces of impure sub-lunar fire in check. It is thus, and thus only, as living barrier rather than warrior, physician, and teacher, that Michael bears the sword.

The spear is pointed, while the sword is bladed; the spear is not other than viveka, the discriminative Intellect. As such, the spear is aimed true to the very heart of any question and thrust deep with will and certainty. The only means of slaying a demon — whether it be of temptation, pride, misperception, or egotism — is to pierce through to its very core and touch its essence, that virtue of which the demon is a perversion. No evil exists unto itself, but only apes a good. Demons are “fallen angels” insofar as they are inverted manifestations of some more essential fact. An equilateral triangle may point upwards or downwards while retaining the same geometry.

By contrast, the work of the sword is the magical act of analysis, by which the sub-intellectual mind increases thoughts and emotions and, thus, confusion, by endlessly slicing the demon into smaller and smaller pieces — each of which holographically retains the same essence, but which comes to embody a different facet of the same perversion. This rationalistic or sentimentalist magical abuse thus works only on the periphery to multiply the problem geometrically, making the demon into numerous smaller, subtler demons. It is, in part, for this reason that incautious divination, hypnosis, and psychiatry are condemned or advised against.

It is an interesting point that it is the throat center in which God Śiva holds the world-poison in safety, and also in which Saint Michael thrusts the tip of his spear in the battle with the Adversary. The throat center is the highest point of the ego, the individual selfhood; therein arises the ahaṃkāra, the “I-maker”, of Sāṃkhya and Yoga, so therein lies the “original sin” of separateness. But it also serves as the most immediate experience of unity and self-existence and, so, as the gateway to the perception of interconnection of the Intellect (“unity in plurality” of the center of the head) and the experience of unitive contemplation (“plurality in Unity” of the crown center). The world poison is held in the throat, but the lunar Soma-ambrosia which purifies one of mortality also drips into this center.

Unlike the sword’s flat blade, the spear’s tip is spade-shaped; it pierces in easily but is impossible to remove the way it went in. The nature of the yogic will is that we cannot reverse our trajectory along the Way; we must see through every act to completion, finding the kernel of each circumstance, striking it with the Intellect, and moving through it and on to the next experience, or else pull up short and remain merely stuck in place until force is applied again in the proper direction. The shaft of the spear is the selfsame “straight and narrow path” of Christ, the vertical axis of the Cross of Calvary which links Heaven and Earth by way of the deiform human.

This axis is also the spinal column, one of the features by which a human is properly human, our deiformity made literal. The world over, the importance of good posture during meditation and prayer is recognized, because the spine is none other than the holy spear of Murugan-Michael by which we both attain to and make manifest the Kingdom of Heaven, the Śivaloka.

In this case, the spear is of course point upright, the butt of the hilt set, as for a mounted charge, into the root center at the base of the spine. On His peacock mount, Murugan thrusts forth, and with his peacock-feathered wings, Michael adds force to his assault against the Dragon of Dispersion. The peacock symbolism adds to the spear by demonstrating the bringing together of diverse mental forces and ego itself necessary for the process of Realization. Beatitude is not had through half-measures and partial efforts, but from total devotion of all faculties to the aim.

If, as I’ve said, the spear’s hilt is set at the spine’s lower terminus, the haft extends all the way to the base of the skull, with the heard of the spear within the skull, its tip resting against the inside of the crown. When the thrust is made, this constitutes the famous shattering of the seal of Brahman whereby the Yogin spills his own śakti into the Mahāśakti, the Great Goddess Who eternally mothers all worlds and universes. But it is once again only by force applied precisely and unflinchingly that the obstacles are overcome and the final Union is achieved, and this is what Murugan-Michael teaches us by His upheld spear.