Sphinx, photo by Jason FaulknerTo know
To will
To dare
To keep silent

These nine words constitute a mantra known as the Powers of the Sphinx. This is the second in a series of four articles considering its possible meaning and implications. The previous article dealt with the instruction “to know,” and concluded that this paradoxically suggests the need for doubt. The mantra suggests the question, Without knowledge, where is an occultist to find meaning? The sphinx was famed for its riddles and, as with any good riddle, the answer is to be found in the question. It is therefore time to consider the implications of the next instruction “to will.”

Style and substance

The concept of will dominates the writings of Aleister Crowley, most notably in his definition of magick and in the Law of Thelema. The practice of magick had, before Crowley, been dominated by elitist societies typified by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Aurum Solis, and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. For these societies, will was a minor component often overlooked. Grand rituals were the order of the day, and were conducted using gaudy pseudo-archaic robes, knives and chalices. There is nothing inherently bad about the use of such tools, but too often style was valued above substance. Some excellent examples of almost comically grandiose Golden Dawn tools can be seen in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, England. Crowley, not entirely by design, played a key role in bringing an end to this state of affairs. The collapse of the Golden Dawn precipitated by his battle for its leadership, followed in turn by the decline of its sister societies, allowed modern occultism to flourish in their place.

Emphasis shifted from organised societies to loosely affiliated individuals. The elaborate rituals which had been thought necessary by these societies were viable only for those of a certain social standing. They alone were in a position to acquire the appropriate tools, attend the scheduled meetings and make contact with the right kind of people. The semi-autobiographical Casebook of a Working Occultist, by E. A. St. George, contains a detailed account of just how much was expected of an initiate. It is certainly more of a commitment than would have been possible for anyone working long hours for little money. It was the shift from magick focused on ritual, to magick as the application of will that made magick accessible to the proletariat, and facilitated its rapid growth. It is therefore of obvious importance to understand the meaning of the instruction “to will” and why it was such a revolutionary idea.

What is will?              

The concept of will is of central importance to another writer besides Crowley: Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was very much in vogue in academic circles at the time Crowley studied at Cambridge, and there are undeniable parallels between them. “Do what thou wilt” might as easily have been a declaration of Nietzsche’s as of Crowley’s. To Nietzsche, will is the strength of an individual’s desire to bring about change in their current circumstances. All living things possess will as part of their fundamental nature, such as when a hungry predator is driven by its will to sacrifice comfort for the ordeal of hunting down its prey. Human nature drives us to create and to destroy. In the individual the strength of will, the drive to bring about change, will vary considerably.

Nietzsche divides humanity into two classes: the Ultimate Man and the Over Man. In the Ultimate Man the will is weak. They accept the circumstances in which they find themselves and seek, not change but, simply to make the most of what they have. They are ultimate in the sense of being all they will ever be. The Over Man refuses to accept a situation which does not conform to their desires. Their will is strong and this drives them to bring about changes. They seek things which seem to the Ultimate Man to be over and above what they are entitled to. The crucial point is that the difference between the two is their mentality. Will bears no relation to the individual’s genetics or culture. Likewise, though Nietzsche was himself a misogynist, there is no inherent reason for gender to be a factor when applying his philosophy. The point to be remembered is that a weak will may be strengthened by any individual who embraces a desire for change.

Will in magick

Crowley’s definition of magick is “causing change to occur in conformity with will.” Here the philosophical arguments of Nietzsche are welded to a belief in supernatural forces. Will is now the agent of change and, with sufficient strength, may remotely bring about that change.

However, rather than Crowley himself, it would seem to be his contemporary, Austin Osman Spare, who understood how best to take advantage of this. Spare was, by trade, an artist noted for his grotesque surrealist paintings. He was also a practicing occultist whose writings proved crucial to the development of what would come to be called chaos magick.

Spare felt that excessive ritual most often proved to be a distraction, and could limit the focus of a person’s will. It is all too easy to be unduly concerned with the mechanics of an act of magick. Better results are achieved when the full force of will is directed at the desired result. To this end, Spare sought to strip away as much ritual as was possible. His system of sigil magick exemplifies this as it requires nothing more than pen and paper. Ritual trappings can still help direct the focus of will — such as using green candles when seeking financial aid — but one must remember that success with any act of magick is down to the strength of the will alone.

A key scene in Crowley’s novel The Moonchild portrays the casual ease with which the veteran occultist, Simon Iff, is able to deal with the malevolent “thing in the garden.” This is contrasted against the excessive methods required by the naive Cyril Grey when he attempts to do the same. It is worth noting that both characters represent Crowley himself at different stages of his development.

Practical application of will

In the previous article in this series,1 tarot served as an example of how knowing can be applied to the practice of magick. There we learned that an occultist should embrace their doubts and, knowing that they know nothing, never let themselves be beholden to convention. The meaning of each card is open to the interpretation of the reader.

Here again tarot will serve illustrate the application of the instruction “to will.” The biggest mistake made when reading tarot, indeed when performing any kind of divination, is to place too much emphasis on the device itself. The cards are not reading the querent’s fortune, rather it is the occultists that is doing so driven by the power of their will. There may be times when meaning of a reading which suggests itself differs from the traditional interpretation of the cards in question. In this case the reader must trust in the strength of their will. One of my mentors advises novices, upon purchasing their first tarot deck, to immediately dispose of any instructions provided. They are instead encouraged to read intuitively and to trust in their own judgement upon each cards meaning.

Are the cards then even necessary? It is true that divination can be achieved through strength of will alone. Will is the strength of our desire for change and, in the case of tarot, we desire to change ignorance into understanding.

Magick is illogical and so our minds find it difficult to accept change. This makes it difficult to apply the full force of will to any rite. Even if our conscious mind accepts the idea that we can cause change to occur in conformity with will, our subconscious rejects it. Ritual provides a logical superficial framework for magick.

With tarot, this framework takes the form of the card’s accepted meanings enhanced by their position in the spread. Whatever power your subconscious may be conditioned into believing the cards possess, they remain only laminated pieces of paper. To reiterate: the cards are not reading the querent’s fortune. It is frequently said that the 13th major arcana does not usually represent death in a literal sense. This is true, but there will be times when it is to be taken literally.2 The card cannot tell you when this is the case, its image carrying both meanings, and so you will depend upon your will changing ignorance into understanding. Likewise a card’s position in a spread may tell you it refers to the past, but when, exactly? It is your will that tells you if it is a case of days or of years.

Ritual may still play a role in your practice. It can be an aide to a will that has not yet reached the desired level of strength. The best results are achieved when your conscious mind maintains a degree of detachment from the ritualistic elements.

Ritual may be compared to a catalyst which encourages a chemical reaction to take place but is not itself a part of that reaction. To give another example, in chaos magick, a sigil is nothing more than a series of lines until it is charged with your will. Otherwise every doodle ever created would possess power with disastrous consequences for their ignorant creator. A sigil is not required to manifest a desire, this is to be achieved through force of will, but it provides a logical framework which conditions the subconscious to accept the idea. This facilitates the channelling of your will into the sigil.

The instruction “to will” is a reminder that the power of an occultists comes from within, not from without. Will is the driving force of all magical practice; ritual is a means to an end not an end unto itself. Ritual without the backing of a strong will is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Image credit: Jason Faulkner

  1. See “Powers of the Sphinx, Part I: To know.” []
  2. See also, “Tarot and sharing bad news.” []