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What Is Involved in Ritual Magic

This article was written by Donald Tyson on May 14, 2002
posted under Magic

By now you may be impatiently asking yourself what ritual magic is, and how to perform it. I want to point out before beginning that it is impossible to fully describe such an extensive subject in this small essay. That is why so many excellent books have been written, books such as The Golden Dawn, edited from the secret papers of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn by the late Israel Regardie; and The Magickal Philosophy, written by two members of the occult society Aurum Solis, Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips—both of which I heartily recommend. That is why I have written The New Magus and Rune Magic. All that can be done here is to provide a taste of what ritual magic consists of, as practiced by hundreds of thousands of people in the modern world, and describe some of the universal techniques that form its foundation.

There is general agreement among scholars that all drama began as magical ritual. The hunter who dressed in a stagskin and danced around the fire, pantomiming his own death, was working hunting magic against the living beasts in the forest. At the same time, he was performing a play before an audience made up secondarily of his fellow hunters, but primarily of the gods.

This magical element predominated in the sacred Mystery plays enacted in ancient Egypt and Greece. It was only when Aeschylus and his contemporaries in the sixth century b.c. began to elaborate on the narrative aspect of the presentation that it took precedence over the original magical purpose. Drama became entertainment, and the audience forgot its original function, which was to bring about change in the world by magical means.

Externally every ritual consists of a fixed set of gestures, movements, and words within a deliberately circumscribed arena or stage. Common features are song, chants, dance, special postures, and breathing. Some or all of these aspects may be internalized—they are still done, but done in the imagination. Since the audience for magic is the Higher Self and the discarnate spirits, it is not strictly necessary to externalize the ritual, although this is usually found to be easier and more effective for the practitioners.

Almost by definition, ritual actions are designed to be repeated in the same sequence and manner many times without variation. It is debatable whether a ritual performed only once can even be called a ritual. Rituals gather power through repetition. Were a ritual to be fundamentally changed each time it were conducted, it would remain impotent. It is my personal opinion, based on experience, that the spiritual awareness or awarenesses interacting with the ritual learn through repetition to recognize it as intended for them and come when called, just as a dog will only respond to its name after it has become familiar with it.

The perception of discarnate Intelligences is not the same as that of human beings. Usually the human and spirit worlds do not interact. Ritual is like a door opening in the middle of the air in the spirit world, the world of magic. If the doorway materializes regularly and often enough, the spirits will come to expect it, and will gather in anticipation of its opening. Bear in mind that this is only a metaphor for the response I have observed in spirits. The same virtue of repetition holds true even in acts of magic that apparently do not involve other spiritual awarenesses. Repetition increases the force and the speed of the ritual outcome.

The underlying premise of magical ritual is that if you represent a circumstance, or act out an event in your mind, it will come to pass in the world. This is what James G. Frazer, in his monumental work The Golden Bough, calls the Law of Similarity: "From the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it." (The Golden Bough, abridged edition, Chapter III. Macmillan, New York, 1951, p. 12.)

Frazer uses the familiar example of a sorcerer who pricks a doll, made in the image of an enemy, with pins to cause injury to his foe. He speaks of material links with the victim's nail parings, hair, and such—but largely ignores the essential connecting link, the mind of the sorcerer. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that magic acts in and through the mind. The external elements of ritual are only sensory aids for the benefit of the magician.

You will need a place set aside for your rituals where you can feel safe, at peace with your emotions, secure from interruption and distraction. You must be able to concentrate completely on one purpose during the time of the ritual. If the person in the next apartment is blasting the stereo, and this gets on your nerves, it is a poor ritual place. You must conduct your rituals at a time when this distraction does not exist, or find another place.

The ritual place need not be large, but must be comfortable. A small mat is useful if the floor is uncarpeted. Some practitioners use a chair, but I find this to be an encumbrance, because in ritual it is necessary to move about, sit, then move about again; and a chair only gets in the way.

As far as possible, everything in the ritual place that is not in harmony with the ritual purpose, whatever it may be at that time, should be minimized or excluded. Everything that supports the ritual purpose should be prominently present, with the proviso that clutter is always a distraction.

Loose clothing should be worn. Belts, shoes, rings, watches, jewelry, and other constricting apparel should be removed. It is useful, though not absolutely necessary, to have a special garment set aside specifically for ritual magic that is comfortable and simple. It is also useful to take a warm bath before each ritual, making it a part of the preliminary purification. This relaxes the body and releases tension, and allows you to present yourself before the gods and your own higher awareness in a pure state, once you have learned to combine the cleansing of the mind with the washing of the flesh. This consists in allowing all the emotional and mental dirt of the day to dissolve away into the warm water and follow it down the drain.

After you have bathed and appareled, it is best to you sit down in the ritual place for a few minutes or so and prepare yourself by creating an inner tranquillity. You need not think about the ritual itself during this period; your unconscious mind will automatically be preparing for it. Also, it is useful to set aside a half hour or so after the ritual to wind down and return your mind to an everyday state of awareness. It is a poor practice to conduct rituals so late at night that you are exhausted immediately after you finish and at once fall asleep. This is guaranteed to give you nightmares. If you do happen to have bad dreams after ritual work, do not worry about them—they are only dreams, and have no power to directly harm you.

Elaborate rituals are not necessary. I keep mine as simple as possible. When a ritual becomes too complex, it is an effort just to remember all the elements, let alone practice it. Also, when rituals consume long periods of time—more than an hour or so—they tend to be exhausting and to lose their focus.

Whether you practice ritual magic once a day or once a week, you will need to keep a written record of your activities, both your purposes and methods, and their results. Writing down a ritual ensures that it is clearly conceived. It is itself a mental rehearsal for the ritual that will follow.

The benefit of recording results is that it allows the Magus to perceive effects and transformations that may be quite slow and subtle, and to mark their direction of progress. This heads off the unfortunate event of a sudden realization that the work is going in the wrong direction, and permits corrections to be made early, before the harm is done. An accurate record can also reveal a great deal about the unseen mechanism of the mind of the Magus, who is then able to use this knowledge to advantage in future rituals. Most occultists also recommend that dreams be recorded during the time of major workings (repeated rituals conducted over a span of weeks or months), for the insight they yield into the effects of the ritual process.

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