Over at The Starry Cave Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold has a really interesting post entitled The Spiritual Beggar And The Work With The Spirits. As usual, with Frisvold’s work, it’s really thought provoking, and in turn, got me thinking about a specific area I loosely term Vagabond Mysteries.
There’s a long tradition of itinerant magicians and sorcerers in many cultures. Partially, I suspect that some of this is part of the same reflex which Others the stranger, and those who seem to be outside social ties, eschewing certain social contracts. However, there’s plenty of historic and legendary cases of wandering wizards in areas as far apart as Magna Graecia and Scandinavia- from the Norse seeresses or volvas, to the philosopher Pythagoras and his legendary reception transmission from the mysteriously nomadic Abaris.
That’s of course even ignoring those wandering priests and magicians cast adrift when the pagan temples of Egypt and Greece were shut down, to say nothing of the potential mobility of those ritual specialists known as Goes who provided significant source praxes contributed to the corpus of of the Western Magical Tradition via the grimoires.
Trace this further and you come up with things ably demonstrated by Jake Stratton-Kent in his works, and all the material Jack Faust has written about concerning witches and the Venusberg – sybiline oracles, faeries, travelling scholars and the like, a good chunk of which feed in to witchcraft beliefs and practices, certainly up to the 17th-18th centuries, and probably even later. I’ve been reading Jason Semmens’ work on William Paynter, folklorist and “Cornish Witchfinder”, wherein he records stories stretching from the 1850’s to at least the 1930’s in Cornwall. Given many Cunning Folk were known to use texts descended from the grimoires – as well as the really quite old Abracadabra triangle and SATOR-ROTAS square – there’s something to be said for the continuance of ritual specialists in a cross-pollinating stream for an extraordinarily long time.
In fact, I’d argue that the 19th/early 20th century occult ‘revival’ is somewhat of an abberation, in that the construction of orders and the like heavily obscured a stream of magic which has continued, in a fashion, even today. I find it deeply interesting that this earthy, practical magic borne of necessity proved the hardest to suppress.
Paynter references the stories attributed to the infamous cunning woman Thomasina Blight, known as Tammy Blee. Amongst these tales is a narrative a shoemaker who grew fed up of Tammy’s late payment, and informed her that she’d get no more shoes from him. According to Paynter, she stormed out after making certain assertions that the craftsman should have no more luck for such a slight.
Paynter records that the recounter of this tale went abroad, only to return some years later to return and find the craftsman packing up to leave the county, citing bad luck and a drop in business since the ‘ill-wishing’.
While this in itself is a demonstration of why you shouldn’t piss off someone so well known for such things, what’s interesting is that again, Blight was either poor or tight-fisted. Compare this to the economic situation of the infamous Pendle Witches, and one begins to spot a theme – people using witchcraft and magic because it was either easier, or they had little alternative. Even Crowley was constantly on the hunt for money,and Joseph Smith of Mormon fame came from a family of magical treasure hunters!
The majority of the time it seems, magic was not a separate intellectual or spiritual pursuit outside of a certain class of individual who was often independently wealthy, or in a position of educated authority such as nobility or the church.
Why is this? For the majority of folk there is little nobility in being poor, unless one exists in a culture where spiritual poverty is at least partially acceptable. Even those of us who fast deliberately for magical purposes often do so deliberately. Not because we are having difficulty feeding ourselves,
Here then, is what I believe to be something of a modern and post-modern paradox, borne of transcendentalism and to a lesser extent, monotheism and monoculture: when one sets oneself apart from the world, one loses a sense of the complex interconnectedness of existence.
“Well, there I went and said it. Any system which says, This is a rotten world, wait for the next, give up, do nothing, succumb —that may be the basic Lie and if we participate in believing it and acting (or rather not acting) it we involve ourselves in the Lie and suffer dreadfully . . . which only reinforces that particular Lie…
Meanwhile, I am trying to bring back an affirmative view of life, as was stamped out furiously wherever it appeared in history, and all I can hope is that I won’t get caught. Well, I will be, but hopefully not too soon. It’s a nice world and I’d like to stick around and enjoy it for a long time . . . but I got to say what I think is so, right? Whatever the consequences.”
– Philip K Dick, July 16 1974, in a letter to Claudia Bush
The above quote can be found in The Exegesis of Philip K Dick – a simply massive tome in which a California science fiction tries to make sense of contact with the High Weird. In 1974, Dick experienced a mystical revelation that came to him in the form of a pink beam of light. The whole book is his attempt to make sense of things, and though it’s generally known that Dick was at one point, seeing the world through a Gnostic framework, the Exegesis is filled with humour and genuine attempts at trying to work out what the hell was going on. What’s interesting about Dick’s experiences is that one of them involved the return of the beam to inform him that his infant son was ill and about to die. The parents rushed to the doctor who discovered that the child had a potentially fatal inguinal hernia.
Think about this for a moment – this is an intelligent, well read individual who has the High Weird make contact, and not only that, indirectly, or perhaps indirectly save the life of his child.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would call such things a positive Result.
Dick even tried to stimulate the experience in various ways, and while he remained convinced, utterly and completely, that Something had happened, he never quite settled, he was always pushing onward. Always trying to frame his experience in a way that made sense, to establish some kind of continuity. Dick’s letter, quoted above, is important precisely because it clearly articulates the affirmative view of life.
What’s this got to do with anything – this particular philosophical inclination?
Quite bluntly, as a friend puts it, living is hustling.
On a biological level, there are plenty of organisms and environments which are inimical to our existence. That’s why we have immune systems – working quietly away to stop us from dying from the common cold or the vibrant bacteria we picked up in that restaurant or supermarket. Most of the time we don’t notice. It’s only when the big guns are brought in that we even begin to exhibit symptoms after all.
This hustling is in fact, at first glance, only the province of the marginalised. Yet, every culture has its so-called creation story, which if you look at it really, is merely a story of cosmic ordering or arrangement. The gods take what there is, even if that’s Nothing, and through their exercise of power, arrange things into some sort of order. Even if we’re going by purely scientific method, the theory of the Big Bang is simply a particular set of inferences based on observation and mathematics.
One might argue then, if one were feeling particularly in the mood, that the Primordial is inherently pre-order, or at least, is fundamentally ungraspable as a whole. Sure we have theorems and workable technologies, but as far as working out how it all fits together as a kosmos, we’re still making guesses, based upon our very limited methods of perception. As I argued in my last post, negative capability is very much a thing – so how does this work in the context of the Starry Cave post I mentioned?
We are the beggars; our perceptions are our outstretched hands. Events, experiences, these are the coin of the realm as it were.
We are all, whether we like to admit it, constantly in a position of need. That is, we are bound by Necessity – we must breathe, eat, drink, and stay within a habitable temperature. Everything we do, at a most fundamental level springs from these simple biological needs. Once they are satisfied, everything else may occur.
Thus, we might argue that it is in times of crisis that the Primordial, or the High Weird kicks in.
Am I suggesting that we only engage in reactive crisis-based behaviour? Of course not – changing one’s life to avoid or deal with crises is always better in the long-term. After all, there are some crises which force us to choose the lesser of evils, when of course a better alternative would be never having to choose at all.
crisis (n.) early 15c., from Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE root *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cognates: Greek krinesthai “to explain;” Old English hriddel “sieve;” Latin cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (past participle cretus) “to sift, separate;” Old Irish criathar, Old Welsh cruitr “sieve;” Middle Irish crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1620s in English. A German term for “mid-life crisis” is Torschlusspanik, literally “shut-door-panic,” fear of being on the wrong side of a closing gate.
The turning point of a disease. The point where one’s loss of ease shifts, the point where an inevitable change occurs. A sieving: selection, discrimination. All of these imply a definitive change of state, a collapsing of possibility into a particular inevitability. At first glance, this might seem to be directly oppositional to the idea of magic as that which increases possibilities, of increasing manipulation or ability.
Things are rarely what they seem though, so let’s take another look at what seems oppositional. Unification of opposites and all that, eh?
Consider for a second that in many countries, begging is actually discouraged, if not actually technically illegal, just as homelessness is an unsightly thing which gets the police involved, an affront to so-called ‘order’ of tax-payers and corporate interests. Being homeless may not actually be a crime, but may as well be treated as such by those who view it as an abrogation or violation of the social contract.
crime (n.) mid-13c., “sinfulness,” from Old French crimne (12c., Modern French crime), from Latin crimen (genitive criminis) “charge, indictment, accusation; crime, fault, offense,” perhaps from cernere “to decide, to sift” (see crisis). But Klein (citing Brugmann) rejects this and suggests *cri-men, which originally would have been “cry of distress” (Tucker also suggests a root in “cry” words and refers to English plaint, plaintiff, etc.). Meaning “offense punishable by law” is from late 14c. The Latin word is glossed in Old English by facen, also “deceit, fraud, treachery.” Crime wave first attested 1893, American English.
plaintiff (n.) c.1400, from Anglo-French pleintif (late 13c.), noun use of Old French plaintif “complaining; wretched, miserable,” from plainte (see plaint). Identical with plaintive at first; the form that receded into legal usage retained the older -iff spelling
plaint (n.) “expression of sorrow,” c.1200, from Old French plainte “lament, lamentation” (12c.), from Latin planctus “lamentation, wailing, beating of the breast,” from past participle stem of plangere “to lament, to strike” (see plague (n.)). Connecting notion probably is beating one’s breast in grief.
plague (n.) late 14c., plage, “affliction, calamity, evil, scourge;” early 15c., “malignant disease,” from Old French plage (14c.), from Late Latin plaga, used in Vulgate for “pestilence,” from Latin plaga “stroke, wound,” probably from root of plangere “to strike, lament (by beating the breast),” from or cognate with Greek (Doric) plaga “blow,” from PIE *plak- (2) “to strike, to hit” (cognates: Greek plazein “to drive away,” plessein “to beat, strike;” Old English flocan “to strike, beat;” Gothic flokan “to bewail;” German fluchen, Old Frisian floka “to curse”).
The Latin word also is the source of Old Irish plag (genitive plaige) “plague, pestilence,” German Plage, Dutch plaage. Meaning “epidemic that causes many deaths” is from 1540s; specifically in reference to bubonic plague from c.1600. Modern spelling follows French, which had plague from 15c. Weakened sense of “anything annoying” is from c.1600.
And here, we’re back at the concept of disease or sickness, aren’t we? Here’s we’re back at the looming threat of death or contagion and disruption, that which undermines the stability of the body or society, renders all the social contracts null and void; all those hoops we jump through – are told we must jump through by those in authority – are revealed as transparent attempts to cover the fact that we’re all faced with death, and that nobody knows what’s really going on.
Despite our apparent herd-immunity to the High Weird, those faced with naked Necessity of survival will quite quickly spot the flaws therein. Strangeness ramps up when normal ‘coverage’ fails. Which brings us back to itinerant magicians and ritual specialists:
“The etymology of the term goes indicates that psuchagogia originally constituted the heart of the concept: it is a derivative of goos, “mourning-song,” and goao, “sing a song of mourning.” The goos was the improvised mourning-song of the dead man’s relatives, predominantly women, and stood in contrast to the threnos, the formal mourning-song for professionals. It was perhaps usual for the former to be sung in antiphony to the later. The original Indo-European root was *gow-, which, as Burkert notes, was onomatopoeic for grief. The derivation continued to perceived throughout antiquity and beyond, which may indicate that psuchagogia or kindred activities continued to be central to the concept of the goes. Thus Cosmas (sixth century A.D.) said: “Goetia is the calling-upon of evil demons that hang around tombs… Goetia got its name from gooi and threnoi of those around tombs.” The Suda was to say that “goetia is said of the bringing up of a dead person (anagein nekron) by the invocation of his name (epiklesis), whence it derives its name, from the lamentations (goon) and threnodies of people around the grave.” It is uncertain at what point the term goes began to be assimilated to the term magos.”
– Daniel Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy. (P. 110 – 111)
The grave-song, dear reader. The lamentations of loss, the wails of the bereft; the knowledge that there is a beyondness, an outsideness which our conciousness cannot grasp without undergoing irrevocable change. Death-as-gate to the Mysteries of Existence. This is the key, the inexorable destruction which is the ineffable primordial well to which we return. The thing which is inescapable and fundamental to everything we are, and yet we strive to deny with every fibre of our existence.
Death is the ultimate crisis. The trial over which the three judges presided in ancient Greece. The weighing of the heart in ancient Egypt. The inevitable doom of Ragnarok. Even the Final Judgement of Christianity.
They say you can’t take it with you. Let me posit then, the notion that you never had it in the first place.
I’ll quote from the Starry Cave here:
I recall one specific encounter with a beggar writing this. I was in downtown São Paulo waiting for a friend, as I sat down and ordered a beer an elderly woman came up to me, with great calm and direction she opened her hand to receive some money and I had only four coins on me and no other cash. I gave her what I had and her reaction was to take one of the coins, throwing it in the ground with great force, murmuring something, and then she blessed me and walked away.
It was a magical moment, because for me this was a living spell, pure sorcery, to take a third of what little you were given and throw it to the ground, evoking something, for the sake of increase. I watched her walking away to a bar across the street where she gained bills, replacing and overriding the few coins I had to give… she had her increase and I gained my blessing…
In this case, the beggar ‘gave up’, but she did not surrender. She did not submit to the Lie, but used it to affirm her place in the world – rather than attempt to avoid it, she exploited her weakness. If Nick is correct, that pure act of sorcery was an evocation. We can’t know what it was to, maybe to a god or a saint, or to the kosmos at large, but it was an entreaty.
Let’s consider this for a second:
Either she used it as a sacrifice to something she had a relationship with, or it was specifically an act of bare-faced guerilla action against a reality which says that it is suicidal to give up what we accumulate; that to do so is to deliberately acknowledge the inevitability of death and dissolution.
Asymmetric warfare of the Soul.
(For those of a certain bent, who know of what I speak, Chronos-Aion and Ananke figure quite heavily in this kind of thing in an alternate world where we have a less fragmentary version of the Western Magical Tradition.)
This asymmetry then, is something we’re taught to want to avoid. Powerlessness is bad, m’kay? Except, actually, as we’re finding out, and is going to become more obvious despite the past three to four centuries (if I’m being kind) or six to seven of relative ‘stability'(have I mentioned I’m not kind?) we have a problem.
Because that asymmetry is not just human ‘default’. It’s our primordial state, and more than that – it’s how we became human.
In short, we’re fucked, and we’ve always been fucked. Our entire history as a species comes from our antecedents, the primordial seeds of life which somehow come into existence in an inimical environment, and somehow survive.
It sounds ridiculous, even unrealistic to point out that the grinning skull is the guarantor of the life-principle, its Principal and Patron.
It really does, I get that. Yet it has an ancient history
“What are men? Mortal gods. What are gods? Immortal men.” ― Heraclitus
This goes way beyond the idea that we project ourselves onto gods, or that they are simply us projecting ourselves onto the kosmos. In fact, given the wider context of Heraclitus fragments, it suggests a profoundly pro-social, co-operative scenario wherein all forms of Being, from gods to men and back, are engaged in an ever-moving interelated whole. Which is to say, quite bluntly, that your death may not matter but it has affect.
Without you, as I have repeatedly said, the universe would be fundamentally altered.
The elderly lady tossing a coin is an assertion of her presence. It’s an active participation in life, an extension of whatever relation she has with the kosmos, a refusal to kowtow and surrender, a commitment not to some nebulous future of bought food and full belly, but to the here-and-now, in that place. And lest you think I’m suggesting this is again surrender, let me quote Gordon’s last post but one:
At the absolute base of magic’s family tree, before it even splits into divination and non-divination, is pattern recognition. When these stars dip below the horizon the sharks start breeding and we should stop fishing, when I dream about Frog a child will die.
How often does your own system of pattern recognition have to yield positive results before it confers a survival advantage on your tribe? 20%? If you are 20% more accurate at locating prey than the shaman from the tribe over the ridge, you boosted your tribe’s available calories by orders of magnitude.
And here’s where things get funky, because pattern recognition is hardwired into us. It’s the basis of that ordering impulse, the codification of patterns as the-way-things-are.
So, let’s indulge in a thought experiment, the kind of thought experiment which is straight out of the impulse behind chaos magic:
How would magic work on another planet?
Just ask yourself that question. Shorn of all cultural referents, fictional or otherwise, how the hell do you adapt to an alien landscape? Ordinary earth-based asymmetry has increased by orders of magnitude. Sure you have all things you know about Earth, but when things are completely and utterly different, what do you do? The conventional wisdom is split within two camps – you terraform the planet, or you genetically engineer yourselves and descendants to survive.
Both of these are only viable if you have the backing of a bigger power. Let’s call it Earth as a whole, yes?
Except what happens when you get cut off from the backing of that power; solar storm puts comms on the fritz, or a solar flare which hadn’t been anticipated cooks your centrifuges and exowombs. You’re a bit fucked, aren’t you?
This is science fiction, yes – but it’s also an only slightly scaled down version of the stuff that early humanity managed to prevail through. Expanding through an alien environment, using their native pattern recognition systems to create an oikumene worth hanging about in, striking details with those emergent processes which were best engaged with through the proven technology which had kept them alive for generations.
The ability to work together and organise around skill-sets and then transmit further improvements in techniques which develop out of that skill set. Implicit within that technology is its shadow, the proverbial left-hand of darkness. The ability to reconfigure and subvert these structures. To forcibly engage with what exists outside the fire, outside the known. To strike pacts and come back back changed.
Of course, in order to strike a deal, you have to go to meet the other party, and in a world where survival is paramount, there’s precious little neutral ground. So what can you do except go into the unknown territory and state your case?
(Toss your coin onto the ground and say Here I am!)
And maybe you get eaten. Maybe you get played. Maybe you get ignored. These are the good outcomes.
Because if you get something else? You’ll never be the same. Why? As the old proverb goes: Beggars can’t be choosers.
This is however, not entirely true – precisely because beggars must be choosers in order to do what they do. There has to be the choice to pick your target, to put out your shingle or sign and say that you are open to receive. That you give not two hoots about another narrative, because you need to survive. This is what our ancestors did, when confronted with mortality. This is not some paean to poverty, some valorisation of homelessness – I’ve been homeless, albeit not living on the streets, thanks only to the kindness of friends, and without them I would probably have died.
No, in fact, the vagabond mysteries are those most fundamental of human mysteries – so fundamental in fact, and so primordial that dealing with them in an unvarnished fashion pushes the boundaries of what we thought-we-knew human was. And if humans have been wandering the planet since we began, then ask yourself what form the ‘first magician’ might have taken, and how they learnt what they knew.
Another though experiment yes, but one that seems incredibly fitting when compared to the off-planet scenario, or the slow anthropogenically induced terror of an inhospitable planet.
One day, you’re going to die. One day it’s all going to fall apart.
So, maybe it’s time to start thinking about what comes next, in the here-and-now, eh?