In a recent conversation with a group of ‘old school’ magicians, witches and occultists the question of how poorly read on occult topics most current students of occultism seem to be in the present day came up. The thread in question had evolved out of a post about Jack Parsons, the famed rocket scientist, libertine author and, most interestingly to this group, the heir to Crowley’s Hermetic Order the OTO after the death of his immediate successor Karl Germer.
Caroline Tully had posed the question of whether Jack Parson’s famous Babalon Working had had any influence on the beginnings of the modern witchcraft cult that was emerging in Britain at the same time. The obvious link in this chain was Aleister Crowley himself, who was Parson’s master in magick and who was also consulted by Gardner on several occasions in 1946-7 while Gardner was establishing his first ‘coven’. Parson’s thinking on feminism definitely had an impact on the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and so also on Wicca after it had migrated to North America at around the same time so Parson’s influence on Wicca or witchcraft is easily demonastrated on that level, but the question really was did he have a more directly magickal influence on the emergence of witchcraft in the 1950s? It is an interesting question.
But this post isn’t about whether Jack Parson’s invoked the spiritual zeitgeist into the world that would go onto become the modern witchcraft movement and the question that was next raised asked how many young witches would have even heard of Jack Parsons? An essential passage in his Book of Babalon that was written in 1946 (exactly when Gardner and Crowley were discussing the emerging need for a nature cult that would later blossom into Wicca) is very suggestive:
65. Gather together in the covens as of old, whose number is eleven, that is also my number. Gather together in public, in song and dance and festival. Gather together in secret, be naked and shameless and rejoice in my name.
66. Work your spells by the mode of my book, practicing secretly, inducing the supreme spell.
67. The work of the image, the potion and the charm, the work of the spider and the snake, and the little ones that go in the dark, this is your work.
68. Who loves not hates; who hates fears; let him taste fear.
69. This is the way of it, star, star. Burning bright, moon, witch moon.
70. You the secret, the accursed and despised, even you that gathered privily of old in my rites under the moon.
71. You the free, the wild, the untamed, that walk now alone and forlorn.
72. Behold, my Brother cracks the world like a nut for your eating.
So it would seem that any serious student of witchcraft would have at least considered his work but the opposite is the case and most modern witches, eclectic and traditional are unaware of this seminal work of 20th Century occultism that may be one of the most fundamental documants that is related to their practice.
The group, which included several academics in the field of occult studies, soon agreed that the fault lay with the source material that modern occultists are using for their textbook material. Most of the books that young witches and magicians are reading are third hand interpretations of the original books that we had studied thirty or more years ago. The references to the original works had been lost in transition while the information had also been watered down just as the message deteriorates in a game of Chinese Whispers. My own experience is that when I mention one of these original sources that the great percentage of young students are keen to explore these new reference sources to try and glean the pearls of wisdom that many of them contain. I am still surprised that so few people that have studied the occult have not read the Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie even though it contains the original blueprint for most of the rituals that they perform and the correspondences that they learn.
So much of what is used by modern witches, like dream books and the magickal powers of crystals has its origins in very old material and yet I doubt whether many would have heard of Artemidorus of Daldis or his Oneirocritica that is the source of most new age books on dream interpretations (even Freud cites this book in his modern work Interpretation of Dreams). Most of the powers that are attributed to stones and crystals are simply plagiarized from Albertus Magnus’ prolific work on the subject and the majority of color, astrological, perfume, elemental and other correspondences used by modern witches were developed in the Golden Dawn as was the use of Tarot for the purposes of divination (as an adaptation of the folk practice of telling fortunes using playing cards). Even though this is overwhelmingly the case with almost all of the practices of modern occultists in general how many have actually read the original works? Or even know that they exist?
In my humble opinion the really important question in all of this is what is the result of all of these new students learning everything at third hand? I am not saying that there are no good new books on magick, quite the contrary, but many of them are academic or not especially geared towards a popular audience (my own books fall into this latter category- an error that I will soon be making up for). Most of the popular books, like Llewellyn’s populist series of magick books, are really the equivalent of a magick for dummies sort of approach to occultism. This may work for some things (‘For Dummies’ books are great for learning how to use new software) but in magick there are no short cuts and having incomplete information will certainly be the difference between genuine spiritual advancement and mere self indulgence which is a great enough danger to practitioners as it is.
Some will stumble onto the right resources, and perhaps that is one of the first ordeals of choosing to take the path of the wise, but on that path there is only one direction and it never pays to regress even if it is only taking two steps forward and only one step back.