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Knocking on Wood: Superstition and the Spirit Model of Magick

This post was written by Anna
on June 16, 2014 | Comments (3)

Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Aaron Leitch, author of several books, including Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, The Angelical Language Volume I and Volume II, and his new Essential Enochian Grimoire.

As many of my readers know, I am a practitioner of the Old Magick. That means I have abandoned the “psychological model” of magick (the belief that magick is strictly an art of the mind, and that spiritual entities are simply parts of our own psyches) in favor of the “spirit model” of magick (the belief that spiritual entities are very real and objective beings).

What that means is that my magick includes protocols for approaching the angels and spirits, methods of making offerings and caring for them, building relationships with them and convincing them (via mutual respect) to work with and for me here in the physical. It is, primarily, a form of shamanism—drawing techniques from ancient cultures and indigenous folks magicks. If you want some good examples of how I work (including photographs of the offering altars), check out these links:

Western Resistance to the Old Magick

Not every occultist wishes to toss aside the psychological model and adopt the old ways. Even now, I hear from those who are uncomfortable with concepts like establishing altars and making food offerings to spiritual beings. For them, the very idea of a spirit model just sounds silly and primitive. It depends on a worldview they feel was rightfully overthrown by science and reason. Above all, they seek to distance themselves from anything they understand as “superstition.”

That word—superstition—appears a lot in Western occult literature. Even Agrippa discusses it in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, so we know the argument has been going on since the Renaissance. Agrippa suggested that superstition can be helpful in magick, while other occultists of his time insisted superstition was the bane of magick and must be abandoned. What these people were actually talking about was indigenous folk magick—witchcraft, shamanism, etc. During their time, such practices were still illegal—punishable by arrest, forfeiture of assets, torture and/or execution. Therefore they had a vested interest in distancing themselves from the ancient pagan methods of magick—or “superstition.”

Because of this environment, the mysteries and philosophies of the Old Magick were lost in the West. The Renaissance gave way to the Age of Enlightenment (aka the Age of Reason) in the 17th century. Over the next several centuries, the study of psychology would rise to prominence in our culture, and most of our modern systems of occultism are based on the psychological model.

For occultists in such an environment, the protocols and actions that are vital to the Old Magick seem like barbarous nonsense. Just take a look at this video of a Voodoo ceremony—is this what you envision when you think of magick?

(Especially check it out from about 4:40 to 7:00, where a priestess is mounted by a spirit.)

If you watch the entire video closely, you’ll see some very specific actions are being taken. One man brings out a whip and starts cracking it violently. Someone removes the above-mentioned priestess’s shoes just as she is mounted by the spirit. And when the spirit leaves her, they wrap a scarf around her head. Notice that specific colors and dress are being worn by some. Specific dance moves and drum rhythms are used by others. There are a ton of things going on in this video—spiritual protocols being followed—yet very little of if would make a lick of sense to most Western occultists.

Superstition: Knock on Wood!

The dictionary defines a superstition as an act or belief that is followed blindly and without reason. If you were to try and re-create the above Voodoo ritual (and assuming you are not initiated into the religion), you would have to blindly follow what you see in the video. You’d have no idea why you were doing any of it: what it was supposed to mean nor what it was supposed to accomplish. Therefore, by definition, you would indeed be engaging in pure superstition—following along in ignorance and the vague hope that it will all work the way you want it to work. And if it does work, you’ll feel obligated to repeat the same actions again—because you don’t know which of your actions, or any of them, or all of them—actually resulted in success.

But A.E. Waite, in his classic Book of Ceremonial Magic, asserts that an action for which we learn the meaning and purpose ceases to be a superstition. All of the strange and apparently chaotic actions you saw in that Voodoo ritual had a purpose. And while you didn’t know what any of it was, the participants knew exactly what was being done at every step. The protocols they were following were important because they do not view their spirits as mere psychological constructs.

I found a wonderful example of this during my last trip to Florida Pagan Gathering. We had some free time before one of my classes was scheduled to begin, so a nice lady decided to tell us all a story. She asked how many of us ever “knocked on wood” when we stated a desire. Most of us have done that very thing. In case you haven’t run across this before: whenever you state that you hope something does or doesn’t happen (for example: “I hope our picnic doesn’t get rained out today!”), you follow it by saying “knock on wood” and rapping on the nearest wooden object you can find. If there is no wood nearby, it often suffices to simply say “knock on wood!”

Have you done that before? Do you know why? If not, then you’ve been engaging in a superstition. But this lady attending my class actually knew why: It all has to do with haints. “Haint” is an old southern American way of saying “haunt,” and it refers to generic and ubiquitous lesser spirits. Haints are very mischievous, and are generally hostile toward humans. They hang around in your house and at your place of business, follow you around, and generally lack anything productive to do with their time. They love to listen in to your conversations, and they particularly love it when they hear that you hope something does or doesn’t happen. Once you’ve said it out loud, the haints run off with glee to make sure the exact opposite of what you wanted occurs. They make it rain on your picnic.

The good news about haints is that they also have the memory of a goldfish. If you’re ever in the south and you see an old house with sand sprinkled across the window sills, that is to keep haints out. The spirits approach the window to enter, see the sand glisten in the moonlight and get distracted. They forget they ever intended to enter the house, and can theoretically be trapped there starring at the sand all night. (There is similar European lore about vampires.) Given the mental state of a haint, it is very easy to distract them.

This is where knocking on wood comes in. When you state something that you desire, you quickly rap on the nearest wooden object in order to mimic the sound of someone knocking at the door. The haints hear it and rush off to the door to see who is there and what trouble they can start, having entirely forgotten what you were just talking about.

Today, the superstitious practice is to make your statement, then declare “knock on wood!” and find something wooden to tap on. But when you know why you’re doing it and what affect it is supposed to have on nearby spirits, it ceases to be a superstition. It is entirely unnecessary to say “knock on wood”—and, in fact it might be detrimental to let the haints know you are about to do it. It is also unnecessary for the material to be wooden, so long as it sounds like someone is knocking at the door. Knowing this, you are using a technique to distract hostile spirits from screwing with you—which is not a superstition at all.

My point in all of this has been to illustrate that there is no set definition of what is and is not a superstition. What makes the difference is knowledge. (And it’s why the oral traditions and lore of any magickal system are extremely important.) Just because what you see in another tradition or culture makes no sense to you, doesn’t mean it is senseless to those within the context of their culture or practice.


Our thanks to Aaron for his guest post! Visit Aaron Leitch’s author page for more information, including articles and his books.

Reader Comments

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#1 
Written By mist42nz
on June 21st, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

As someone trained in building with timber, and also as a medieval reenactor who occasional builds spears and staves, the prime reason I knock on wood is to judge it’s soundness and density. I understand a similar process is done for building boats and rafts some of which take a huge amount of work to produce usable timber…and for impromptu rafts a few soft spots can hold insect life which tend to come out of hiding when fully loaded raft is in the water!
So much easier to give many knocks and press a talented ear to the work to understand it’s lie, than to fell and split a tree only to find it corrupt/unusable.

A modern variant which is places is a tap to the forehead/skull for similar reason. “knock on wood”. In an age of synthetic fibres you know it just makes sense…

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#2 
Written By 12/13/14
on August 12th, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

blessed be

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