Ritual Theory and Technique

By Colin Low | August 24, 2001

1. Introduction

This essay attempts to say something useful about magical ritual. This is difficult, because ritual is invented, and any sequence of actions can be ritualised and used to symbolise anything … but then something similar can be said about language, and about words, and that doesn’t prevent us from trying to communicate.

My motivation for writing this is my belief that while any behaviour can be ritualised, and it is impossible to state “magical ritual consists of this” or “magical ritual consists of that”, some magical rituals are better than others. This raises questions of what I mean by “goodness” or “badness”, “effectiveness” or “ineffectiveness” in the context of magical work. I intend to duck this with a pragmatic reply. A magical ritual is “good” if it achieves its intention without undesired side effects, and it is “bad” if the roof falls on your head.

Underlying this definition is another belief: that magical ritual taps a raw and potentially dangerous (and certainly amoral) psychic force which has to be channelled and directed. Traditional forms of magical ritual do that and are not so arbitrary as they appear to be.

A difficulty in trying to understand traditional ritual is that it is framed within the world view of a time and culture. An example of this was the belief throughout medieval times that magic operated through the agency of an evil power. There were other explanations, such as the “natural magic” of the cultured Renaissance mage, or going back to the late Roman Empire, the highly sophisticated theurgic model of the Platonist philosopher Iamblichus. Each culture has interpreted magical ritual according a deeper theory about how it works, and it happens that many modern magicians have modern “deep theories”. These have been strongly influenced by an eclectic mixture of philosophy and psychology, and I would say that this is one such deep theory about how ritual works, and hence a basis for understanding what works well, and what doesn’t work so well.

An outline of ceremonial magical ritual (in the basic form in which it has been handed down in Europe over the centuries) is that the magician works within a circle and uses consecrated tools and the magical names of various entities to evoke or invoke Powers. It seems to work. Or at least it works for some people some of the time.

How well does it work? That’s a fair question, and not an easy one to answer, as there is often too much ego at stake in admitting that one’s rituals don’t always work out. My rituals don’t always work – sometimes nothing appears to happen, sometimes I get unexpected side effects. The same is true of those magicians I know personally, and I suspect the same is true of most people. Even at the mundane level, if you’ve ever tried to recreate a “magical moment” in a relationship, you will know that it is hard to stand in the same river twice – there is an elusive and wandering spark which all too often just wanders.

In summary, I like to know why some rituals work better than others, and why some, even when that elusive spark is present, go sour and call up all the wrong things. These notes contain some of my conclusions. As I have tried to lift the rug and look underneath the surface, the approach is abstract in places. I prefer to be practical rather than theoretical, but if magic is to be anything other than a superstitious handing-down of mumbo-jumbo, we need a model of what is happening, a causality of magic against which it is possible to make value judgements about what is good and bad in ritual. Traditional models of angels, spirits, gods and goddesses, ancestral spirits and so on are useful up to a point, but these are not the end of the story, and in penetrating beyond these “intermediaries” the magician is forced to confront the nature of consciousness itself and become something of a mystic.

The idea that the physical universe is the end product of a “process of consciousness” is virtually a first principle of Eastern esoteric philosophy, it is at the root of the Kabbalistic doctrine of emanation and the sephiroth, and it has been adopted by many twentieth century magicians as a useful complement to whatever traditional model of magic they were weaned on. Once one has accepted that it is possible to create “thought-forms” and “artificial elementals” and “telesmic images”, it is a small step to admit that the gods, goddesses, angels, and spirits of traditional magic may have no reality outside of the consciousness which creates and sustains them. This is what I believe personally on alternate days of the week. On the remaining days I am happy to believe in the reality of gods, goddesses, archangels, elementals, ancestral spirits and so on. In common with many modern magicians I sit on the fence in an interesting way. There is a belief among some magicians that while gods, goddesses etc may be the creations of consciousness, on a par with money and the Bill of Rights, such things take on a life of their own and can be treated as if they were real, so while I take the view that magic is ultimately the manipulation of consciousness, you will find me out there calling on the Powers with as much gusto as anyone else.

2. Magical Consciousness

The principle function of magical ritual is to cause well-defined changes in consciousness. There are other (non-magical) kinds of ritual and ceremony – social, superstitious, celebratory, religious – carried out for a variety of reasons, but magical ritual can be distinguished by its emphasis on causing shifts in consciousness to states not normally attainable, with a consequence of causing effects which would be considered impossible or improbable by most people in this day and age.

The realisation that the content of magical ritual is a means to an end, the end being the deliberate manipulation of consciousness, is an watershed in magical technique. Many people, particularly the non-practicing general public, believe there is something inherently magical about ritual, that it can be done, like cooking, from a recipe book; that prayers, names of powers, fancy candles, crystals, five-pointed stars and the like have an intrinsic power which works by itself, and it is only necessary to be initiated into all the details and hey presto! – you can do it.

I believe this is (mostly) wrong. Symbols do have power, but not in the crude sense implied above; magical power comes from the conjunction of a symbol and a person who can bring that symbol to life, by directing and limiting their consciousness through the symbol, in the manner of icing through an icing gun. Magical power comes from the person (or people), not from the superficial trappings of ritual. The key to ritual is the manipulation and shifting of consciousness, and without that shift it is empty posturing.

So let us concentrate on magical consciousness, and how it differs from the state of mind in which we normally carry out our business in the world. Firstly, there isn’t a sudden quantum jump into an unusual state of mind called magical consciousness. All consciousness is equally magical, and what we call magical depends entirely on what we consider to be normal and take for granted. There is a continuum of consciousness spreading away from the spot where we normally hang our hat, and the potential for magic depends more on the appropriateness of our state for what we are trying to achieve than it does on peculiar trance states. When I want to boil an egg I don’t spend three days fasting and praying to God; I just boil an egg. One of the characteristics of my “normal” state of consciousness is that I understand how to boil an egg, but from many alternative states of consciousness (like being blind drunk) it is a magical act of the first order. So what I call magical consciousness differs from normal consciousness only in so far as it is a state less appropriate for boiling eggs, and more appropriate for doing other things.

Secondly, there isn’t one simple flavour of magical consciousness; the space of potential consciousness spreads out along several different axes, like moving in a space with several different dimensions, and that means the magician can enter a large number of distinct states, all of which can be considered different aspects of magical consciousness.

Lastly, it is normal to shift our consciousness around in this space during our everyday lives, so there is nothing unusual in shifting consciousness to another place. This makes magical consciousness hard to define, because it isn’t something so extraordinary after all. Nevertheless, there is a difference between walking across the road and walking around the world, and there are differences between what I call normal and magical consciousness, even though they are arbitrary markers in a continuum. There is a difference in magnitude, and there is a difference in the “magnitude of intent”, that is, will. Magic takes us beyond the normal. It disrupts cosy certainties. It explores new territory. Like new technology, once it becomes part of everyday life it stops being “magical” and becomes “normal”.

We learn the “magic of normal living” at an early age and forget the magic of it,becoming habituated to a particular mode of being. Normal living affects us in ways which the magician recognises as magical, but so “normal” that it is difficult to realise what is going on. From the point of view of magical consciousness, “normal life” is seen to be a complex magical balancing act, like a man who keeps a hundred plates spinning on canes at the same time and is always on the point of losing one. Magical consciousness is not the extraordinary state: normal life is. The man on the stage is so busy spinning his plates he can spend no time doing anything else.

A characteristic of magical consciousness which distinguishes it from normal consciousness is that in most magical work the magician moves outside the “normally accessible” region of consciousness. Most “normal people” will resist an attempt to shift their consciousness outside the circle of normality, and if too much pressure is applied they panic, throw-up, become ill, have hysterics, call the police or a priest or a psychiatrist, or end up permanently traumatised. Sometimes they experience a blinding but one-sided illumination and become fanatics for a one-sided point of view.

Real, detectable shifts in consciousness outside the “normal circle” are to be entered into warily, and the determined ritualist treads a thin line between success, and physical and psychical illness. A neophyte in Tibet swears that he or she is prepared to risk madness, disease and death, and in my personal experience this is not melodramatic – the risks are real enough. It depends on temperament and constitution – some people wander all over the planes of consciousness with impunity, some find it extremely stressful, and some claim it never did them any harm (when they are clearly as cracked as the Portland Vase). The grosser forms of magic are hard to do because body and mind fight any attempt to move into those regions of consciousness where it is possible to transcend the “normal” and create new kinds of normality.

A substantial movement into magical consciousness can be accompanied by a feeling of “energy” or “power”. Subject/object distinctions break down. Reality becomes a fluid, and the will is like a wind blowing it this way and that. It can be scary when it isn’t controlled, like someone trying to control a firehose. It is not a state of mind where one can easily judge whether reality is genuinely malleable, but the overwhelming consensus of millennia is that it is.

There are several traditional methods for reaching abnormal states of consciousness: dance, drumming, hallucinogenic and narcotic substances, fasting and other forms of privation, sex, meditation, dreaming, and ritual, used singly and in combination. These notes deal only with ritual. Magical ritual has evolved organically out of the desire to reach normally inaccessible regions of consciousness and still continue living sanely in the world afterwards, and once that is understood, its profundity from a psychological point of view can be appreciated.

Limitation

The concept of limitation is so important in the way magical ritual has developed that it is worth taking a look at what it means before going on to look at the basics of ritual.

We are limited beings: our lives are limited to some tens of years, our bodies are limited in their physical abilities, and compared to all the different kinds of life on this planet we are clearly very specialised compared with the potential of what we could be, if we had the choice of being anything we wanted. Even as human beings we are limited, in that we are all quite distinct from each other, and guard that individuality and uniqueness as an inalienable right. We limit ourselves to a few skills because of the effort and talent required to acquire them, and only in exceptional cases do we find people who are expert in a large number of different skills. Most people are content if they are acknowledged as being expert in one thing, and it is a fact that as the sum total of knowledge increases, so people (particularly those with technical skills) are forced to become more and more specialised.

This idea of limitation and specialisation has found its way into magical ritual because of the magical (or mystical) perception that, although all consciousness in the universe is One, and that Oneness can be perceived directly, it has become limited. There is a process of limitation in which the One (God, if you like) becomes progressively structured and constrained until it reaches the level of thee and me. The details of this process (sometimes called “The Fall” or “The Great Chain of Being”) lies well outside a set of notes on ritual technique, and being theosophical, is the sort of thing people like to have long-winded arguments about, so I am not going to say much about it. What I will say is that magicians and mystics the world over are relatively unanimous in insisting that the normal everyday consciousness of most human beings is a severe limitation on the potential of consciousness, and it is possible, through various disciplines, to extend consciousness into new regions – this harks back to the “circle of normality” I mentioned in the previous section.

From a magical point of view the personality, the ego, the continuing sense of individual “me-ness”, is a magical creation with highly specialised abilities, an artificial elemental or thoughtform which consumes all our magical power in exchange for the kind of limitation necessary to survive, and in order to work magic it is necessary to divert energy away from this obsession with personal identity and self-importance.

Consider the following problem: you have been imprisoned inside a large inflated plastic bag. You have been given a sledgehammer and a scalpel. Which tool will get you out faster? The answer I am looking for is the scalpel: a way of getting out of large, inflated, plastic bags is to apply as much force as possible to as sharp a point as possible. Magicians agree on this principle – the key to successful ritual work is a “single-pointed will”. A mystic may try to expand consciousness in all directions simultaneously, to encompass more and more of the One, to embrace the One, perhaps even to transcend the One, but this is hard, and most people aren’t up to it in practice. Rather than expand in all directions simultaneously, it is much easier to limit an excursion of consciousness in one direction, and the more precise and well-defined that limitation to a specific direction, the easier it is to get out of the bag.

Limitation of consciousness is the trick we use to cope with the complexity of life in modern society, and as long as we are forced to live under this yoke we can make a virtue out of a necessity, and use our carefully cultivated ability to focus attention on minutiae to burst out of the bag.

What limitation means in practice is that magical ritual is designed to produce specific and highly limited changes in consciousness, and this is done by using a specific map of consciousness. There are symbolic correspondences within the map which can be used in the construction of a ritual – I discuss this later. The principle of limitation is a key to understanding the structure of magical ritual, and a key to successful practice.

To summarise the last two sections, I would say the characteristics of a “good” ritual are:

  1. Entry into magical consciousness and the release of “magical energy”.
  2. A limitation of consciousness to channel that energy in the correct direction, with minimal “splatter”.

Without the energy there is nothing to channel. Without the limitation, energy splatters in all directions and takes the path of minimal psychic resistance to earth. A magical ritual is the calculated shifting and limitation of consciousness.

4. Essential Steps

There is never going to be agreement about what is essential in a ritual and what is not, any more than there will ever be agreement about what makes a good novel. That doesn’t mean there is nothing worth discussing. The steps I have enumerated below are suggestions which were handed down to me, and a lot of insight (not mine) has gone into them; they conform to a Western magical tradition which has not changed in its essentials for thousands of years, and I hand them on to you in the same spirit as I received them.

These are the steps:

  1. Open the Circle
  2. Open the Gates
  3. Invocation to the Powers
  4. Statement of Intention and Sacrifice
  5. Main Ritual
  6. Dismissal of Powers
  7. Close the Gates
  8. Close the Circle

4.1 Open the Circle

The Circle is the place where magical work is carried out. It might literally be circle on the ground, or it could be a church, or a stone ring, or a temple, or it might be an imagined circle inscribed in the aethyr, or it could be any spot hallowed by tradition. In some cases the Circle is created specifically for one piece of work and then closed, while in other cases (e.g. a church) the building is consecrated and all the space within the building is treated as if it is an open circle for long periods of time. I don’t want to deal too much in generalities, so I will deal with the common case where a circle is created specifically for one piece of work, for a period of time typically less than one day.

The Circle is the first important magical limit: it creates an area within which the magical work takes place. The magician tries to control everything which takes place within the Circle (limitation), and so a circle half-a-mile across is impractical. The Circle marks the boundary between the rest of the world (going on its way as normal), and a magical space where things are most definitely not going on as normal (otherwise there wouldn’t be any point in carrying out a ritual in the first place). There is a dislocation: the region inside the circle is separated from the rest of space and is free to go its own way.

There are some types of magical work where it may not be sensible to have a circle (e.g. working with the natural elements in the world at large) but unless you are working with a power already present in the environment in its normal state, it is useful to work within a circle.

The Circle may be a mark on the ground, or something more intangible still; my own preference is an imagined line of blue fire drawn in the air. It is in the nature of consciousness that anything taken as real and treated as real will eventually be accepted as Real – and if you want to start a good argument, state that money doesn’t exist and isn’t Real. From a ritual point of view the Circle is a real boundary, and if its usefulness is to be maintained it should be treated with the same respect as an electrified fence. Pets, children and casual onlookers should be kept out of it. Whatever procedures take place within the Circle should only take place within the Circle and in no other place, and conversely, your normal life should not intrude on the Circle unless it is part of your intention that it should. Basically, if you don’t want a circle, don’t have one, but if you do have one, decide what it means and stick to it.

There is a school of thought which believes a circle is a “container for power”, and another which believes a circle “keeps out the nasties”. I subscribe to both and neither of these points of view. From a symbolic point of view, the Circle marks a new “circle of normality”, a circle different from my usual “circle of normality”, making it possible to keep the two “regions of consciousness” distinct and separate. The magician leaves everyday life behind when the Circle is opened, and returns to it when the Circle is closed, and for the duration adopts a discipline of thought and deed which is specific to the type of magical work being undertaken; this procedure is not so different from that in many kinds of laboratory where people work with hazardous materials. The circle is both a barrier and a container. This is a kind of psychic sanitation, and in magic “sanity” and “sanitary” have more in common than spelling.

Opening a Circle usually involves drawing a circle in the air or on the ground, accompanied by an invocation to guardian spirits, or the elemental powers of the four quarters, or the four watchtowers, or the archangels, or whatever. The details aren’t so important as practicing it until you can do it in your sleep, and you should carry it out with the same attitude as a soldier on formal guard duty outside a public building. You are establishing a perimeter under the watchful “eyes” of whatever guardians you have requested to keep an eye on things, and a martial attitude and sense of discipline creates the right psychological mood.

4.2 Opening the Gates

The Gates in question are the boundary between normal and magical consciousness. Just as opening the Circle limits the ritual in space, so opening the Gates limits the ritual in time. Not everyone opens the Gates as a separate activity; opening a Circle can be considered a de-facto opening of Gates, but there are good reasons for keeping the two activities separate.

Firstly, it is convenient to be able to open a Circle without going into magical consciousness; despite what I said about not bringing normal consciousness into the Circle, rules are made to be broken, and there are times when something unpleasant and unwanted intrudes on normal consciousness, and a Circle can be used to keep it out – like pulling blankets over your head at night. Secondly, opening the Gates as a separate activity means they can be tailored to the specific type of magical consciousness you are trying to enter. Thirdly, just as bank vaults and ICBMs have two keys, so it is prudent to make the entry into magical consciousness something you are not likely to do on a whim, and the more distinct steps there are, the more conscious effort is required. Lastly – and it is an important point – I open the circle with a martial attitude, and it is useful to have a breathing space to switch out of that mood and into the mood needed for the invocation. Opening the Gates provides an opportunity to make that switch.

4.3 Invocation to the Powers

The invocation to the Powers is often an occasion for some of the most laboured, leaden, pompous, grandiose and turgid prose ever written or recited. Tutorial books on magic are full of this stuff. “Oh glorious moon, wreathed in aetherial light…”. You know the stuff.

If you are invoking Saturn during a waxing moon you might be justified in going on like Brezhnev addressing the Praesidium of the Soviet Communist Party, but as in every other aspect of magic, the trick isn’t what you do, but how you do it, and interminable invocations aren’t the answer. On a practical level, reading a lengthy invocation from a sheet of paper in dim candlelight requires so much conscious effort that it is hard to “let go”, so I like keep things simple and to the point, and practice until I can do an invocation without having to think about it too much. That leaves room for the more important “consciousness changing” aspect of the invocation.

Weiser Midpost - Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook

If interminable tracts of deathless prose work for you, then fine, but I find it difficult to keep a straight face when piety and pomposity combine to produce the sort of invocations to be found in print. I name no names.

An invocation is like a ticket for a train: if you can’t find the train, there isn’t much point in having the ticket. Opening the Gates gets you to the doorstep of magical consciousness, but it is the invocation which gets you onto the train and propels you to the right place. It isn’t something which “just happens” unless you have a natural aptitude for the aspect of consciousness you are invoking.

However, it does happen. People tend to begin their magical work with those areas of consciousness where they feel most at home, so they may well have some initial success. Violent, evil people do violent and evil conjurations; loving people invoke love. Intellectual people seek new knowledge. Most people begin their magical work with “a free ticket” to some altered state of consciousness, but in general, invoking a specific aspect of consciousness takes practice and I don’t expect immediate results when I invoke something new.

I cannot give a prescription for entering magical consciousness. Well devised rituals, practiced often, have a way of shifting consciousness which is surprising and unexpected. I don’t know why this happens; it just does. I suspect the peculiar character of ritual, the way it involves the senses and occupies mind and body simultaneously, its numinous and exotic symbolism, the intensity of preparation and execution, involve dormant parts of the mind, or at least engage the normal parts in an unusual way. This is consistent with modern knowledge of neurophysiology, where the brain is no longer seen as exhibiting a unitary centre of consciousness.

The modern view of the brain views it as a riot of concurrent activities, most of which are not revealed in behaviour and remain undetected by the conscious part that stitches the result together into an illusion of ego. It should not be at all surprising that the aesthetic unity and sensory and emotional intensity of ritual can trigger patterns which never normally occur. One could view ritual as a way of forcing many otherwise free-running and uncoordinated parts of the brain into synchrony. A confirmation of this might be the experience of unity so often reported by magicians and mystics (who may use different methods, but attain similar ends).

Using ritual to cause shifts in consciousness is not exceptionally difficult. Obtaining the results you want, and avoiding unexpected and undesired side-effects is harder. Ritual is not a rational procedure. The symbolism of magic is intuitive and bubbles out of a very deep well. The whole process of ritual effectively bypasses the rational mind, so expecting the outcome of a ritual to obey the dictates of reason is … completely irrational. The image of a horse is appropriate: anyone can get on the back of a wild mustang, but reaching the point where horse and rider go in the same direction at the same time takes practice. The process of limitation described in these notes can’t influence the natural waywardness of the animal, but at least it is a method for ensuring that the horse gets a clear message.

4.4 Statement of Intention and Sacrifice

If magical ritual is not to be regarded as a form of bizarre entertainment carried out for its own sake, then there has to be a reason for doing it – healing, divination, personal development, initiation, and the like. If it is healing, then it is usually healing for one specific person, and then again, it is probably not just healing in general, but healing for some specific complaint, within some period of time.

The statement of intention is the culmination of a process of limitation which begins when the Circle is opened. To return to the analogy of the large plastic bag, the statement of intention is like the blade on the scalpel – the more precise the intention, the more the energy of the ritual is concentrated to a single point.

The observation that rituals work better if their energy is focussed by intention is in accord with experience in everyday life: any change involving other people, no matter how small or insignificant, tends to meet with opposition. If you want to change the brand of coffee in the coffee machine, or if you want to rearrange the furniture in the office, someone will object. If you want to drive a new road through the countryside, local people object. If you want to raise taxes, everyone objects. The more people you involve in a change, the more opposition you encounter, and in magic the same principle holds, because from a magical point of view the whole fabric of the universe is held in place by an act of collective intention involving everything from God downwards. When you perform a ritual you are setting yourself up against a collective will to keep most things the way they are, and your ritual will succeed only if certain things are true:

  • You are a being of awesome will. You have finally obtained the legendary Talisman of Krum and the universe is your plaything.
  • You have allies. The universe is changing, there is always a potential for change, and if your intention coincides with an existing will to bring about that change, your ritual can act as a catalyst.
  • You limit your intention to minimise opposition. The analogy is the diamond cutter who exploits natural lines of cleavage to split a diamond.

Suppose you want to bring peace to the world. This is an admirable intention, but the average person would have no more effect (with or without magic) on the peacefulness of the world than they would if they attempted to smash Mount Everest with a rubber hammer.

Rather than worry about the peacefulness of the whole world, why not use your ritual to create a better relationship with your spouse, or your boss, or someone who really annoys you? And why not work on the specific issues which are the main source of friction. And try to improve things within a specified period of time. And do it in a way which respects the other person’s right to continue being a pain in the arse if they so wish? And also accept the risk (and this is where the double-edge magical work reveals itself) that you may discover that the major cause of friction was your own behaviour?

This is the idea behind focussing or limiting an intention. Having said all this, there are a lot of people in the world who would appreciate some peace, and perhaps your grand intention to bring peace might catch a wave and help a few, so don’t let me put you off, but as a general principle it is sensible to avoid unnecessary opposition by making the intention as precise as possible. Think about sources of opposition, and about ways of circumventing that opposition – there may be a simple way which avoids making waves, and that is when magic works best. Minimising opposition also reduces the amount of backlash you can expect – quite often the simplest path to earth for any intention is through the magician, and when there is a lot of opposition that is what happens. [The very act of invoking power creates a resonance and a natural channel through the magician.]

I try to analyse the possible outcomes and consequences of my intentions. There is a popular view that “if it harms none, do what you will”. I can think of many worse moral principles, and it is better than most, but it is still naive. It pretends that it is theoretically possible to live without treading on another person’s toes. It gives me permission to make unilateral decisions about what is or is not harmful to others. It is so wildly unrealistic, even in the context of everyday life, that it only seems to make sense if I intend to live in seclusion in a wilderness living off naturally occurring nuts and berries (having asked the squirrels for permission). If it is used as a moral principle in magic, then it draws an artificial distinction between magical work and the “push me, push you/if it moves, shoot it, if it doesn’t, cut it down” style of contemporary life – that is, we know that everyday life is fenced around with a million written and unwritten rules, to reduce the number of dangerous disputes caused by people “doing what they will”, and the idea that magic presents a moral greenfield site where the innocent can have fun does emasculate the concept of a power for causing change.

I prefer to believe that just about anything I do is going to have an impact on someone or something, and there are no cute moral guidelines. There are actions and there are outcomes, and often, there are consequences. The aim is not to live according to guidelines, but to understand as fully as possible the consequences of the things we do, and to decide, in the light of our understanding (which has hopefully kept pace with our power), whether we are prepared to live with the outcomes.

And so to sacrifice. There is a problem here. The problem arises from the perception that in magic you don’t get something for nothing, and if you want to bring about change through magic you have to pay for it in some way. So far so good. The question is: what can you give in return?

There is a widespread belief that you can sacrifice a living creature, and while most modern magicians (self included) abhor the idea, the perpetuation of this idea is still being used as a stick to beat the magical and pagan community about the head. The issue is further complicated by the fact that when one looks at surviving shamanistic practices worldwide, and looks at the origins of most religions, ritual animal sacrifice is endemic. That doesn’t make it right, and I have an unshakable prejudice that it isn’t an acceptable thing to do. I am only too aware of my hypocrisy when I order a chicken curry, so I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and rant on about it.

What I prefer to do is to examine what the notion of sacrifice means. What can one legitimately sacrifice? You can’t legitimately sacrifice anything which is not yours to give, and so the answer to the question “what can I sacrifice” lies in the answer to the question “what am I, and what have I got to give?”.

You certainly aren’t any other living being, and if you don’t make the mistake of identifying yourself with your possessions you will see that the only sacrifice you can make is yourself, because that is all you have to give. Every ritual intention requires that you sacrifice some part of yourself, and if you don’t make the sacrifice willingly, then either the ritual will fail, or the price will be exacted anyway.

I don’t have a rational justification for this statement, and it certainly isn’t based on “karma” or a paranoid feeling that accountants are everywhere in the cosmos, counting beans, and studying your personal balance sheet. The observation that “there are no free lunches” is the folk wisdom equivalent. The belief was handed on to me as part of my magical training, and having observed the way in which “magical energy” is utilised to carry out intentions, it makes sense.

Each person has a certain amount of what I will call “life energy” at their disposal – some people call it “personal power”, and you can sacrifice some of that energy to power the ritual. Sacrifice does not mean turning the knife on yourself (and there are people who do that). What it means in ordinary, down-to-earth terms is that you promise to do something in return for your intention, and you link the sacrifice to the intention in such a way that the sacrifice focuses energy along the direction of your intention. For example, my cat was ill and hadn’t eaten for three weeks, so, as a last resort, fearing she was about to die of starvation, I carried out a ritual to restore her appetite, and as a sacrifice I ate nothing for 24 hours. I used my (real) hunger to drive the intention, and she began eating the following day.

Any personal sacrifice which hurts enough engages a deep impulse to make the hurt go away. The magician can use that impulse to bring about magical change by linking the removal of the pain to the accomplishment of the intention. And I don’t mean magical masochism. We are (subject to all caveats on generalisations) creatures of habit who find comfort and security by living our lives in a particular way, and a change to that habit and routine causes some discomfort and an opposing desire to return to the original state. That desire can be used. Just as a ritual intends to change the world in some way, so a sacrifice forces us to change ourselves in some way, and that liberates magical energy. If you want to heal someone, don’t just do a ritual and leave it at that. Become involved in caring for them in some way, and that active caring can act as a channel for whatever power you have invoked. If you want to use magic to help someone out of a mess, provide them with active, material help as well; conversely, if you can’t be bothered to provide material help, your ritual will be infected with that same inertia and apathy – true will, will out, and in many cases our true will is to flatter the ego and do nothing substantive. I speak from experience.

From a magical perspective each one of us is a magical being with a vast potential of power, but that is denied to us by an innate, fanatical, and unbelievably deep-rooted desire to keep the world in a regular orbit serving our own needs. Self-sacrifice disturbs this equilibrium and lets out some of that energy, and that is why egoless devotion and self-sacrifice has a reputation for working miracles.

4.5 The Main Ritual

After  invoking the Powers and having stated  the  intention and   sacrifice,  there would seem to be nothing more to  do,  but most people like to prolong the contact with the Powers and carry out some kind of symbolic ritual for a period of  time varying from  minutes to days. Ritual as I have described it so far  may seem like a cut-and-dried exercise, but it isn’t; it is more of an art than a science, and once the Circle and Gates are opened, and the Powers are “in attendance”, whatever science there is in ritual  gives  way to art. Magicians operate in  a world  where ordinary things have complex symbolic meanings or correspondences, and  they use a  selection of consecrated implements or “power objects” in their work. The magician can use this palette of symbols within a ritual to paint of picture which signifies an intention in a non-verbal,  non-rational way, and it is this ability to communicate an intention through every  sense of the body,  through every level of the mind, which gives ritual its power. I can’t say any more about this because it is personal and unique to every magician, and each one develops a style which works best for them.

4.6 Dismissal of Powers

Once  the  ritual  is complete the Powers  are  thanked   and dismissed. This begins the withdrawal of consciousness back  to its pre-ritual state.

4.7 Close Gates/Close Circle

The final steps are closing the Gates (thus sealing off  the altered  state   of consciousness) and closing  the  Circle (thus returning to the everyday world). The Circle should not be closed if  there is any suspicion that the withdrawal from the altered state has not been completed fully.  I like to carry out a sanity check  between closing the Gates and closing  the Circle. It sometimes happens that although the magician goes  through the steps of closing down, the attention is not engaged, and the magician remains in the altered state.  This is not a good  idea. The energy of that state will continue to manifest in every intention   in everyday life, and all sorts of unplanned  things will  start to happen.  A related problem is that every magician will find sooner or later an altered state which compensates  for some of their perceived inadequacies (in the way that many people like to get drunk at parties),  and they will not want to let   go of  it because it makes them feel good,  so they come out of  the ritual in an altered state without realising they have failed  to close down correctly.  This is called obsession, and it is one of the interesting difficulties of magical work.

Closing down correctly is important if you don’t want to end up like a badly cracked pot.  If you don’t feel happy  that  the Powers  have  been   completely dismissed  and  the  Gates closed correctly, go back and repeat the steps again.

5. Maps & Correspondences

If  consciousness is imagined as a space we can move  around  in, then it is a space of several dimensions.  An indispensable  tool for  any magician is a method for describing this space  and  its dimensions, a   method to specify the  “the  coordinates of consciousness”, like giving a map reference. The magician uses such  a  descriptive method to say “this is where I want  to  get to”, and you can imagine a ritual as a vehicle which transports him or her to the destination and back again.

A descriptive method of this type is one of the most obvious and characteristic features of a particular  magical  technique, because states of consciousness are usually described using a dense mesh of symbolism and metaphor, and if a magical tradition has been around for any length of time it becomes identified by the details of this symbolism.  Given the tendency for maps to be confused with territory,   there is a tendency for  symbolism to take on a life of its own and become detached from authentic  magical technique. People confuse  magical   symbolism with magic; its use as a coordinate system is lost, vast tomes of drivel are written, and every manner of absurdity follows.

I am a Kabbalist by training and use a map of consciousness called “The Tree of Life”. This map has been coloured in using a thousand years  of symbolism. The result  is called  “the correspondences”,  and it is a system which allows me to navigate around the dimensions of consciousness with some precision. There are many other maps, some well worn by history, some not, and my choice is a matter of personal preference.  It  works  for  me because  of the kind of person I am,  but it is only a map and  I would not pretend that there was anything intrinsically special about it.

Many  magicians operate within a  religious  framework. The Christian Mass is a magical ritual par excellence,  and there are several other magical rituals associated with Christianity. Some magicians  work within a pantheon – Graeco-Roman, Egyptian, Scandinavian, Aztec or whatever. Some (e.g. Crowley) invent their own religion. A characteristic of all these systems is that they provide  a   complex mesh of symbol and metaphor, a map for the magician to work  within.   For any pantheon it  is usually straightforward (with some bending,   stretching and hitting  with a hammer) to identify a personification for the following aspects of consciousness:

  • heaviness, old-age, stagnation, limitation, inertia
  • creativity, inspiration, vision, leadership
  • violence, force, destructiveness
  • harmony, integrity, balance, wholeness
  • love,  hate,  passion, sensual beauty, aesthetics, emotional power, nurture
  • reason, abstraction, communication, conceptualisation, logic
  • imagination, instinct, the unconscious
  • practicality, pragmatism, stolidity, materialism

And  once  we have gods and goddesses (or  saints)  to   personify these qualities, a weave of metaphors and associations elaborates the picture;  the Moon is instinct,  fire is both destructive and energetic,   death is a scythe, air and mercury are “the same”, and so on.  The meaning of a symbol is personal – white means “death” to some and “purity” to others. What matters is that the magician should  have  a   clear map,  and with it the ability to invoke different  aspects of consciousness by using the symbolism of gods, goddesses, archangels, demons or whatever.   It does not matter whether the magician believes in the literal  reality of the territory or not, as long as he or she treats the map with respect  and does not muddy the water by dabbling with  too  many different maps. There are two principal ways in which maps become muddled,  and as the main theme of these notes is the precise use of limitation in conjunction with magical consciousness,  I  think it  is  worth mentioning what I see as potential pitfalls. The first pitfall is mixing systems; the second is working with other people.

There is a natural tendency to muddle different systems  of correspondences together,  to add Egyptian gods to a  Kabbalistic ritual, to say that Tanith is really the same as Artemis, or that Cybele and Astarte and Demeter are “just” different names for the Mother Goddess, to find parallels between Thor and Mars, between Kali and Hecate,  between the Virgin Mary and Isis,  until,  like different colours of paint mixed together,  everything ends up in shades of muddy brown. This unifying force is everywhere  as people find universal themes and try to make links between groups and systems.

It is (in my opinion) a bad idea to mix systems together in a spirit of ecumenical fervour. Correspondences are like intentions:  the sharper and more clearly defined they are, the better they work. Despite a few similarities, the Virgin Mary is nothing   like Isis, and Demeter has very little in  common  with Astarte.   Syncretism  usually takes place slowly over  the centuries, so that for most people today there is no distinction between the classical Greek and Roman pantheons, and Mercury is considered to be synonym for Hermes, but to do this in real-time in your own head is a recipe for muddle-headedness.

Symbols  can  be  diffused when people work  together  in   a group. It is a mistake to believe that “power”  is raised in direct  proportion  to  the number of people  taking part in a ritual. Something may be raised, but just what isn’t easy to predict. Unless people have been trained together and have similar “maps”, then the ritual will have a different effect on each person,  and  although  more  power may be   raised,  it  will be unfocussed and will probably earth  itself   through  unexpected channels. When  people  begin working together there will  be a  period  of  time when their work together will probably be less effective  than any one of them working alone, but after a   time their  “maps”  begin  to converge and things start to improve dramatically.  There is nothing magical about this -  it is a phenomenon of teams of people in general. I don’t like “spectator rituals”;  you are either in it or your are  out, and if you are out, you are out the door.

Does  it matter what map,  what system of correspondences a person   uses?  Is there a “best” set?  This is an impossible question to answer.  What can be said is that working within  any magical  framework incurs a cost. The more effective a magical system is at limiting, engaging and mobilising the creative power of  consciousness,  the more  effective it is at ensnaring consciousness within its own assumptions and limitations.  If a person works within a belief system where the ultimate nature  of God is pure,   unbounded love, joy and bliss, then that closes off other possibilities.

Without sitting in judgement of any set of beliefs, I would say  that  the best belief system and the best system of correspondences is one which allows consciousness to  roam  over the greatest range of possibilities, and permits it the free-will to choose its own limitations. And that is a belief in itself.

6. Conclusion

The gist of these notes is that ritual is a technique for focusing magical power through the deliberate use of limitation.

Limitation comes from the belief system of the magician, and the set of correspondences used to create symbolism within the ritual. Further limitation comes from the structure of the ritual itself, and ultimately from the statement of intention. With practice these elements add up to a single-mindedness that can shift consciousness out of its normal orbit.

Ritual Theory and Technique. The author grants the right to copy and distribute this document provided it remains unmodified, and the original authorship and this copyright header are retained. Inclusion of this document in any commercial distribution or printed publication without prior permission is prohibited.

Originally circulated on the Usenet c.1990. This (mildly) revised version was released in 1998.

Copyright © Colin Low 1998 (cal[at]digital-brilliance[dot]com)

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