In the past couple of decades there has been a surge in the popularity of the occult with a rise in mainstream middle-class acceptance of belief in things like Tarot and magick. In the late 1970s when I first became interested in magick literature on the subject was scant, almost unobtainable and often cryptic or just plain impractical. A recent search on amazon.com turned up over 1500 titles that have the word magick or magic in them. A number of those titles are the classic works of occultism of course, but even accounting for them and double entries or books that are off topic there would still have to be 1,000 books on magick that can be bought over the internet.
Thirty years ago it was nigh on impossible to find guidance in the occult arts, let alone an initiator or an established order of adepts. Now it would seem that anyone can read up a bit, go to a new age festival and attend a workshop or two on the secrets of the arcane arts and viola! You’re a trained Adept ready to conjure Solomon’s spirits from their infernal depths to come to do your bidding. The impact that this has had is very complex. Old school occultists that have stuck to their discipline and know its true value will always insist on a structured approach to occult study and practice. The feature of following the program of a magickal order that is nearly always lacking in the self taught magician is the goal. The lowest Novice in a proper order knows from the beginning what the objective of the exercise will be. The dilettantes that cherry picks only those things that appeal to them wont develop all of the necessary skills and so their mastery of magick will always be incomplete and they will struggle to make any actual spiritual progress.
Among my fellow Thelemites this issue boils down to a question of initiation. Whilst there is widespread acceptance that self initiation is possible it is only the rarest individual who will succeed on that path. The consensus seems to be that at least the first initiation should be overseen by an Adept. As one frater put it; Thelema should court discipline, class, manners… not create temples based on unrestricted debauchery. Self styled magicians will struggle to acquire the correct discipline without initial guidance and the danger is that the practices will degenerate into self indulgence. This seems to be the same challenge that divides the Wiccan-Pagan world at the minute.
Whilst I am not saying that there is any sort of split in the Australian Wiccan-Pagan community there is definitely a division in its members. On the one hand are the traditionalist Witches who have learned their discipline, submitted to its ordeals and trials and, most importantly, passed the initiations that are at the heart of Gardnerian-Alexandrian Witchcraft. On the other hand are the eclectic Witches who may have followed one method or may have scotched together a simile of witchcraft. Rarely are they initiated and, in fact, a recent thread on a Wiccan site that I follow questioned the importance of initiation and of the three degrees of Wiccan attainment. The old school voices in the group all pointed out that Wicca as it was presented by Gardner (in Witchcraft Today) has always been an initiatory religion making the degrees central to the practice. The eclectics responded by asking if Gardner’s works are even relevant anymore or if it is just a form of Wiccan snobbery. How far does Wicca have to depart from the traditional practices before it is mere affectation, façade and indulgence?
As it would seem that the interest in occultism is not going to fade away any time soon, nor are there going to be any less people abandoning their cultural beliefs for new age religions like Wicca and Thelema, then the question of qualification is going to continue to divide opinions as well. As initiation is at the heart of the matter then perhaps that should be the focus of the solution. Personally I believe that self initiation is a viable option for unconnected students who cannot find or cannot join a working group. The importance of initiation should be given more stress in the popular books and magazines that currently form a gateway to magick and witchcraft. It is only through experienced initiates properly explaining then processes of magick that Novices will be able to take themselves onto the path and initiate themselves. It is the unbalanced, unguided approach to magick that leads so many people astray and that gives magick a bad image in the mainstream middle-class perception.
Certainly when many people discover the routine drill of properly learning magick, the hours of meditation, practice and study involved, they are disappointed. Magick is supposed to be flash and exciting. There will always be those who turn to magick under the misapprehension that it is a quick fix or no effort solution to their problems. About 90% of the correspondences that I get asking about ‘lessons in magick’ mention money or personal problems too. Really, those sorts of people should steer clear of magick. But the 10% that are genuine deserve good advice and patience. My Golden Dawn initiation instructed me to treat even the least Neophyte with respect as he may be someone far greater than me. By excluding people altogether, and by not offering any alternative to joining a group, are magickal orders and perhaps covens also, denying themselves the opportunity to find those few really talented individuals from outside of their circles who might just be the next brightest and best?