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 Essential Enochian Grimoire.
It never fails! If you pose a question about a ritual instruction to a group of occultists—hoping academia has discovered the likely origin and/or intent of such an instruction—you’re always going to get multiple responses of, “Why don’t you just conjure the spirits and ask them?” Let me give you a brief example: just go into any occult group and ask them what “butterfly blood ink” is supposed to be. This ink is called for in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses where it is required to inscribe the Seals of the spirits. Many people will tell you it is likely ink made of saffron, but no one will know why “butterfly blood” would be saffron, or even if that was the intent of the original author of the grimoire. Then, without missing a beat, it will come: “Why don’t you just ask the spirits?”
Ah, personal gnosis…the practice of learning things directly from spiritual beings. What a touchy subject! On one hand, you have guys like me who insist you should learn your magick directly from your spirits. The spells you find in books can be useful, but they are not spells tailored by your own familiar spirits or Patrons to your specific needs. The book spells can fail, but the spells revealed by your spirits will never, ever, fail when done right.
Yet… I don’t want all of that to give you the impression that books should be avoided! I’ve heard from a disturbing number of individuals who insist all books are worthless, or that no “real” mage would resort to them. Sadly, when you meet this type, they are all over the place, lacking any kind of foundation, and certainly have no knowledge of the basics of how to work with spirits in the first place. If they are in contact with anything at all (besides their own egos), the spirits are doing little more than leading them on a merry chase. Most often I suspect they are just making things up as they go along, and resorting to “personal gnosis” because no one can contradict it.
For certain, there is a time and a place for personal gnosis. When students begin asking me if I think their spirits will like this, or be offended by that, I tell them to ask their spirits. If someone was inspired to write a ritual, and they want me to critique it, I tell them to let their own spirits critique it. Where it comes to how you interact with your spirits, it’s entirely between them and you. My opinion means very little in that regard.
But there is a problem with personal gnosis when it comes into conflict with academic research. There is, in fact, a good reason why we need the books after all. The problem with asking the spirits directly is that YOU may lack the necessary knowledge they would need to convey the ideas to you. Spirits don’t communicate by using vocal cords to vibrate air that bounces off your eardrums. They use what we today would call “telepathy:” they communicate directly to your mind. (Agrippa describes it as being similar to the way light impresses itself directly onto your eye without an obvious medium of communication.) This becomes an issue when attempting to convey ideas into a mind that lacks the words or symbols to represent them.
For example, imagine attempting to explain the finer points of quantum mechanics to a three year old child. Try as you might, that child simply has no mental tools to make sense of what you are saying. In the end all you can do is “dumb it down” and use parables to convey just the tiniest shadow of the concept to the child. (Usually just a first step that you hope the child will build on in the future.) I have told many students that this is what it is like for an angel or deity to attempt to communicate with us know-it-all primates. It can take them years to slowly lead us to ideas that, in retrospect, seem simple and obvious. But it was only simple and obvious after we had accumulated the knowledge and experience to make it click.
This applies even to things we might think should be fairly straightforward, such as asking a spirit to explain an obscure instruction found in a grimoire. (Like what in the depths of Hades is “butterfly blood” supposed to be?) If you lack the context and the historical background that makes a practice make sense, they simply have no way to put the right words or images into your mind.
Let’s look again at the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. The book says you must prepare for thirteen days before the ritual, and then you must partake of the “sacrament of the Three Kings” before entering the circle. For years people thought that meant you had to “bring a gift” (an offering) into the circle, because the three Kings had brought gifts to Jesus. The idea became so widespread you could now call it traditional, and there are still Hoodoo conjurers out there who adhere to it. Not one time, in all the decades people have been using the ritual, did any spirit ever contradict that interpretation of the instructions. Chances are some conjurer received that information from a spirit he was working with in the first place.
But then comes Joseph H. Peterson with his edition, and he figured out that the instructions actually mean one must prepare for the thirteen days from Christmas Eve until Epiphany Eve (i.e., the famous Twelve Days of Christmas), and then you must attend Epiphany Mass (the actual sacrament of the Three Kings) before you enter the Circle. You are also required to have certain items consecrated during the Epiphany Mass, and to use Epiphany Water during the ritual. So why didn’t any spirit ever say this before? Why did they let conjurers “bring a gift” and leave it at that, when they could have revealed that Epiphany was the whole focus the entire time?
Because they couldn’t. The conjurers in question didn’t have the necessary knowledge, nor the cultural context, to make sense of it. And thus the spirits had nothing with which to convey the information. Meanwhile, Joe Peterson studied the history, the manuscripts, the culture that produced them, and he was easily led by the spirits to the right answer. He had the knowledge and the context.
When studying magick, you first have to exhaust every human source of knowledge available to you. You don’t want to conjure a spirit and ask it a question that could have been answered with Google or a glance through a book you could easily obtain. It tends to irritate them.
Our thanks to Aaron for his guest post! Visit Aaron Leitch’s author page for more information, including articles and his books.