First off, I’m going to make it quite clear that the definition of “magic” has never really been concrete and immutable. Alistair Crowley may have attempted to codify a definition of ceremonial magick to differentiate it from stage illusions, but that’s one of many working definitions in the communities under the pagan & polytheist umbrella, and only a handful of the others are based on or influenced by Crowley’s — and if you’re being perfectly honest, you know this is the case.
To many Christians (and I know this from experiencing conversations with said about this topic), any kind of divination is automatically “magic” and forbidden to them — except to the few of those specific Christians why count astrology as a science. To some Hellenists (including those seeking to sully the term “religious reconstruction” with their own brand of Neoplatonic fundamental absolutist One-True-Wayism) “magic” is the use of so-called supernatural forces to alter reality and is automatically “hubris” because they can find a few ancient writers who agreed (I will return to this). To a lot of pagans and polytheists, including this one guy I’ve butted heads with several times, the line between what is “religion” and what is “magic” is ultimately quite blurry and may include not only divination, but also meditation and basic prayer.
Now, I don’t subscribe to an all-or-nothing worldview where either all is magic or nothing is magic — I believe it is safe to say that spellcraft is magic, and without a doubt, so is ceremonial magic, but if I pray to Apollon and the Mousai with a request that my friend Jason and I create a brilliant piece of music, and then we do, in fact, create something we both agree is brilliant enough to put our own names on and which a third friend is willing to première in Brisbane — was that magic? By some definitions I’ve heard from a pagan or two in-person, the fact that I burned some bay with that request (shh!) technically may make it spellcraft — obviously, she missed the fact that I don’t do spells, so why don’t we just smile and nod condescendingly, because we know better [taps nose].
As for ancient Hellas, I’m going to quote my friend Gavin, cos she put it about as well as I would:
I do not argue that it is obvious that some people in some places at some points in time of ancient Greek society did not hold magic in high esteem, believed it to be hubris and its practice was taboo. But at the same time there is also evidence of people who did practice magic, both high and low, in ancient Greek societies. I hear this explained away by the anti magic crowd as, “Well clearly they knew what they were doing was wrong and they did it anyway.” Uh-huh. I guess that’s one way to explain away contrary evidence while still allowing your pet theory to stand, but its a pretty weak one. By that same token, thousands of years from now, someone could, say, come upon the writings of Pat Robertson and decide that everyone in our culture believed that abortion and homosexuality was morally wrong, but people were still gay and had abortions, well they must have known what they were doing was wrong and did it anyway. We all know its not as simplistic as that, some people hold those beliefs while other people most certainly do not. And since ancient Greece is not in any way the mono culture such people so desperately want to believe that it was, doesn’t it make more sense to assume that different people, living in different places at different periods of time held different options on the practice of magic?
The “logic” that the ancient Hellenes who practised magics “obviously knew it was hubris and did it anyway” really quite fails in the same way that Fred Phelps may like to claim that I “obviously” know that sucking dick and worshipping any God but his is “sinful, but [I] do it anyway knowing this” is full of fail. No, I worship the Gods of Hellas because I believe it in my heart is the right thing to do — and I suck dick because I believe that the myriad ways to give and receive orgasm is a Divine gift. Similarly, many in this day and age who practise magic believe it little more than a tool to aide in or supplement religious practises, so it makes sense that since this culture really hasn’t come all that far from ancient Hellas that there was definitely a similar line of thought to those ancient Hellenes who practised magic. That said, you really can’t argue with the fact that there was a cult of Kirke, nor that Homer’s epigrams included an invocation to Kirke to punish those who have wronged one — nor can you argue with the fact that, like the mythos of many other deities, Kirke’s hardly begins and ends with The Odyssey.
Furthermore, if you place a large amount of spiritual validity in Fate, and/or give the Moirai a large amount of importance in the workings of the world, then logically speaking, those who practise magics cannot possibly be working against their own fates, as they were obviously predestined to practise magics. Now, you can still believe that magic may be hubris, depending on where you place the Moirai in relation to other deities, and if you believe that the Moirai are too disconnected from humanity to care for the desires of, say, Athene (as an example I just pulled out of my arse), then the logic of “magic = hubris” would still be consistent, because now Hubris would be defined as something only certain deities care enough to define, and therefore would only be applicable to certain philosophical schools and/or cults to individual deities. While this formula may then call into question the placement of, say, Zeus as “the Supreme Deity” (since now even He is a mere thread in the tapestry of the Moirai), the existence of cult worship can work around this.
Furthermore, since it is clear that Kirke is an immortal goddess (this is even spoken by Hermes in The Odyssey), complete with Her own cult centre on the quaintly named Isles of Witches (Pharmakoussai) off the coast of Attika, it’s seems apparent that “hubris” may in fact vary from cult to cult — it would seem rather odd if the cult of Kirke would set a bar against spells and potions. Additionally, if modern polytheists are quick to allege that Hera is not the bitter shrew that Homer portrayed in The Odyssey, and indeed point to a vast mythology that quite hardly begins and ends with Homer (who, of the goddesses he portrayed in his epics, was most consistently favourable toward Athene, and clearly using the rest to at least occasionally exercise his own misogynies and apparently personal biases), then the bias that persists against Kirke seems doubly harsh, as her mythology is also far more complex than the picture painted by Homer. I may not be of Her cult, but I can still call bullshit when I see it.
That said, as I’ve stated prior, I don’t do spellwork (unless you follow a loose definition that any ritualised prayer that consists of requesting divine assistance, especially when it comes, is therefore “spellwork”). I definitely don’t do ceremonial magic (absolutely never interested me). I do, though, practise regular divinations.
Divination, at least the definition I use, is the use of a medium to ask the Gods for clues to be interpreted and which may prove useful later. This medium can be nearly anything, and the clues given are usually vague, but sometimes alarmingly clear. My preferred media are scrying, or “seeing something in nothing”, and tasseomancy, or cup-reading; I’ve also occasionally used dowsing with pendulum or, as a child, with a deck of cards; recently, I’ve created tiles for Greek alphabet divination, but have seldom used them.
I’ve been reading cups of tea a Greek (Turkish) coffee since high school, and I’ve gotten rather good at it. You start with loose-leaf tea coffee made in an ibrik (which has to be ground to a fine powder or it will be too bitter), drink until no more than half a tablespoon of liquid is left, then you upturn the cup, hold it tight to the saucer, gift it a good shake, then allow it to run down the inner surface while you form your question. You look for shapes and symbolism that will help you answer it. This method of divination was developed with the ancient Hellenes and used sediment from the bottom of a cup of wine, then later coffee from Ethiopia, and then even later tea — and I think this method may have developed independently in India, as well, but don’t quote me.
Scrying is commonly associated with crystal balls, and indeed, they are popular for it, but I prefer a matte black bowl filled with water or the smoke from incense or bay. I’ve considered trying an obsidian glass (commonly called a “scrying mirror”), but I like my water and smoke — mainly cos they’re cheap, but I was delighted to learn that ancient Hellas was familiar with nearly all forms of scrying, and even had a few springs reserved (apparently) just for the purpose. I first attempted this in high school, but got bored with waiting to see something, and abandoned any further attempts until about four or five years ago, when I managed some success. The way it works best for me is to start by “blurring my vision” and then slowly easing myself into a self-trance; I kind of did this on accident the first time, and still find it impossible to explain how to do this and make it work. Only advice I can offer that seems true to my experiences, is “try to force it, and it won’t work”.
Dowsing is most commonly associated with the use of a forked branch in an attempt to find groundwater (sometimes referred to as “water witching”) and this method may be of 15th Century CE German origin, but pendulums were used earlier in the ancient Near East, and it was first recorded by the ancient Hellenes as being widely practised on Crete as early as 400BCE, and there is evidence that pendulums were used at Delphi[link]. I first did this when I was in high school and used it occasionally until my senior year; the method I got used to was with a dowsing board, and I later learned that most people prefer to do it “freehand” and just determine before holding up the pendulum which direction means what — I prefer a board because it’s consistent and it can leave fewer questions about which direction things start swinging in. I’ve also learned that some people will use just about anything as a pendulum, but I prefer to pick my pendulums the way some people pick their tarot card decks — which would be to browse as many as I can until I find one that I “feel” would get along best with me (or, at least, this is how I’ve heard from a few people how they pick their tarot decks, so I’m assuming it’s relatively common with people who prefer tarot); this would also be the main reason I haven’t had a dowsing session since high school. As a few may know, I left my family’s home rather abruptly the week after my eighteenth birthday, leaving me to finish high-school on my own after deciding on a dime, “fuck this place” and moving to Ann Arbor — long story short, I left a lot of shit behind, including my dowsing board and pendulum, and I haven’t found a pendulum I really liked since, though I’ve since considered replacing my own dowsing board with something hand-made, either painted or embroidered. Well, I take that back, I’ve found a couple pendulums that I feel I could work with, but either other expenses come up, or, during the moments I could, in theory, afford it, I haven’t thought about picking one of them up — and it’s not like I don’t already have other divination methods that also work for me.
Now, dowsing with a deck of cards is something that, as a small child, I first learned about on a now-cancelled program called Pinwheel that my babysitter got on cable. It wasn’t described as “dowsing” in the sketch it was shown in, but it worked pretty much the same way. From memory, the sketch started with a girl looking for her lost thing, and the puppet set up as a sort of gypsy-fortuneteller type handed the girl a deck of cards and directed her to throw them into the air 52 Pickup-style, and that when she reached the final card, she’d find her thing. I did this a lot as a child after that episode, much the the annoyance of my mother, but honestly? It helped me find a lot of things.
Now I do find it oddly coincidental that I started looking into and doing these methods of divination all before I formally started looking into Hellenismos — and that they all managed to also be methods that were also used in ancient Hellas. I also find it rather odd that, in the modern community, or at least the public face of said on-line, like past and present Neokoroi Mantikoi seem to prefer tarot cards.
I’m really not trying to “diss” tarot or people who prefer it and really get along with it. Truth me told, I dabbled in learning tarot during high school, and I just never really liked it. I had nothing to do with learning the meanings of cards, that was actually the easier and more interesting part, and it had nothing to do with various spreads being “restrictive” — in fact, I found a few that I liked and which could have worked for me. In fact, the *only* time I delved into spellcraft (when I was seventeen), it was a method that utilised tarot cards and… let’s just say that the results have forever made me sceptical of those who assert that “magic/spellcraft doesn’t work” — that one incident was enough to convince me that those who can say such things either a) never tried it, and so are basing their “theory” unscientifically on an untested hypothesis, or b) if they tried it, they were totally doing it wrong. That one incident also was freaky enough at the time that it killed my interest in doing anything else with spellcraft, but pretty much as a personal interest only — it did leave me sure that there were definitely people who were meant to delve into this sort of work, and these people did not include myself — I suppose it’s also possible that I misread things completely and that this was a sign that I should dive into it more deeply, but if that’s really the case, then the Theoi really have no problem pointing shit like that out to me when I’m being stubborn.
I’m also really re-thinking the title of this post, as I’ve already made it kinda clear that the “Big Woo” part of my practise is hard to put into coherent thoughts and words. I will also add, though, that I’ve felt a similar nudge toward Trophonios that Sarah Kate has, but I also feel free to explore this at my own pace.
As to whether or not magics and/or divination should be a central focus of Hellenismos, well, I think the ancient Hellenes have left a pretty workable model for that: Most people had vocations and interests that lied elsewhere, and so if their ethics were such that they could make use of those who could perform spells or divinations, then there was no real need to learn it themselves. In fact, oracular work took a lot of training in both receiving and interpreting, so it stands to reason that most people simply weren’t going to do that; maybe a higher ratio were going to pick up cup-reading or scrying or herbal spellcraft (indeed, there were even curse kits that were sold and seemed rather popular for something apparently “forbidden” by leading philosophical schools), but even this was not something that everybody did, if only because learning it seemed a bit daunting. In short, I’m not of the “fundie-recon” opinion that spellcraft should never be delved into — but nor am I of the opinion common in “neo-Pagan” circles that everybody should learn at least a few basic spells: If everybody is special and powerful, or at least potentially so (by common Neo-Pagan thought), then logically it would follow that nobody is, because that would then undermine the definition of “special”, which would be “uncommon”; and if the prevailing idea is that nobody has the potential to be special and powerful (as the bottom line for recon-fundies goes), then the only option for evidence of otherwise is to ignore it, which merely amounts to being just as much of a lie as “everybody is special and powerful”. Obviously, the only logical conclusion here is to admit that there is a middle ground that is in harmony with nature.
…then there’s things like Theurgy, a common practice with NeoPlatonism, and one which possibly originated with them, which really blurs the lines of what is and is not “spellcraft” and therefore begs the question of “is this ‘good magic’, or ‘bad’?” After all, as early as Homer’s Odyssey, there was clearly both “good magic” and “bad magic’ as Hermes revealed to Odysseus the secret herb to defend himself against Kirke’s own spells — which not only cements Hermes’ realm as inclusive of magics, but also makes it clear that not all magics are equal, and that use of defensive, protective magics is easily argued as Not Hubris.
I’ve come to the conclusion that magic is a tool for performing certain functions — there are definitely things that it cannot do (I am highly sceptical of pretty much all of the more fantastical claims from the Neo-Pagan community, including, but not limited to, teleportation and “advanced glamours”, like changing the colour of one’s eyes without contacts). I liken this to any other tool, like a computer or a hammer; you could try using your laptop to pound in a nail, but you’ll get faster and more precise results from a hammer; that said, you also would need the right hammer for the job — using a sledgehammer to do the job of a carpenter’s hammer will probably damage your project, and using a ball-peen hammer for carpentry will probably damage your hammer. You will also find it cumbersome, at best, to use a jeweller’s hammer in place of a whisk when mixing pancakes, and you will find it impossible to log onto the Internet with one. It’s also possible to go through your entire life and never have to personally use any hammer at all and be completely fine, because other tools are better suited not only to your purposes, but your skills — but you probably live in a house or apartment that was built by people who used hammers and loads of other tools you may know nothing about. On the other hand, you may also go through your life never having had to employ the use of a stick-blender, either on your own or through another person — you just have no desire to drink a smoothie, or you can clearly see that the barrista making yours is using a pitcher-style blender.
Magic is kind of like that; it would be impossible for most people to say 100% conclusively that magics have had absolutely no effect on their lives, but it can be far easier to answer whether or not we’ve personally employed it, either ourselves or through one we know to be proficient in it. It’s also a tool, based on its nature, that most people who employ it should probably go through one who is learned in using it — it can be more jack-hammer than carpenter’s hammer. You may also find it best to never once employ another for it, and that’s fine, too.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to condemn those who for themselves believe it would be unethical to employ magics; after all, there are some people who get through life just fine without employing any religious beliefs, and I don’t condemn them, but I do think those condemning all employment of magics, even by people they clearly have nothing to do with, should shut the fuck up. While I understand the desire to distance one’s own religious practises from Popular Wicca, really now, there’s a point where I think some people are just too quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. After all, the pentagram has roots with Pythagoreans, and I find it a little childish the way some modern Hellenists will run screaming from one simply because it’s been adopted by Wiccans — after all, Pythagoreans, arguably, have far more right to it than Wiccans. And while on the topic of Pythagoras, it seems quite obvious that many ancient Hellenes believed Pythagoras capable of fantastic magical feats, and that this does not seem too clearly discouraged by the man himself — I’m not saying anything more than this fact is, well, intriguing, and that it also wears away at the potential assumption that all philosophical schools may outright condemn magics.
I also have no problem with modern groups that have decided that a defining point of their group will be either an apparent rejection of spellwork (as seems to be the case with YSEE, but obviously is not the case with every Hellene in Hellas), or simply defines it as something irrelevant to the group (as with Hellenion, which I’m obviously a member of). Groups should be free to define themselves as their members see fit, obviously. No, my issue is with those who seek to ignore the facts of ancient Hellas when its convenient for them to do so, and when those people seek to denounce those today who don’t fit into their own fabricated ideal. Remember, I’m one who has naught interest in spellcraft and whose only arguably “magical” practises pretty much begin and end with divination, which even some “fundies” claim to have no problem with. Hellas never existed as a monoculture, and it’s intellectually dishonest to extol the merits of a reconstructed path while blatantly ignoring the wealth of ancient practises, much less denouncing certain practises as somehow “invalid” and unworthy of modern practise because they simply exist outside of one’s own invented ideal.
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