Tag Archives: Alchemy

Oh Light – A Conversation Across Disciplines with Musician and Writer Eric Lindley of Careful

Oh Light, Eric Lindley’s latest album as Careful, is a well crafted example of sonic Alchemy. As he explains in his essay for Indigest Magazine on the process of creating the album, it was a harrowing month of experimentation in his girlfriend’s closet that lead to the emergence of a unified and beautiful vision through “multiple guitars (plucked and bowed), mbira, flute, punch-card music-box, toy percussion, and hundreds of layers of vocals.”

With a background that includes time at Dartmouth College studying under experimental composer and musical theorist Larry Polansky, and at Cal Arts with the minimalist pioneer James Tenney studying music and cognition, much of his live performance has been focused on creating participatory installation works that use biofeedback to create a direct interaction with the audience. Biofeedback, for Lindley, has become a tool for focusing on the listening experience to better understand composition.

It also changes the way that he experiences music. Through Biofeedback Lindley is able to tap in to a deeper understanding of how harmonic elements come into play in changing and enhancing emotional responses. It gives him a direct look at how the listener is being physically affected by the experience they are having.

While building one of the devices he uses in his installation pieces, a friend of Lindley’s helped him test the GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) sensor by using it to monitor their meditation. These direct applications show the potential for those willing to explore a wider understanding of the creative process to have a deeper relationship with sound and art.

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Recordings & Traces

Gentle atmospherics on tenor banjo accompanying a brief bit from one of Manly P. Hall’s lectures.

Thanks to Kim Cascone for sending a link to the MPH recordings.

Breaking with Tradition

So, I present for reflection in the end; when you seek a self initiation, what do you seek? When you state a denomination or traditional pedigree to your initiation, what are you really stating? When you state you are priest/priestess – who are you really and why did you took on this office?

- from The Initiation of Self, Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold

Reading Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold’s post, The Initiation of Self, lead me to reflect on the ways that his question applies to the Alchemical Tradition. The assumption is all too often made that the Mysteries passed down by Tradition are simply a sexier way of dressing up a metaphor, some psychological template that can be assumed at will through reading a book or going through the pre-ordained motions.

Often when a seeker hits upon something they don’t understand, or finds no outlet for their search, they will take the easiest byroad that seems to fit what they are looking for. When that seeker puts on the mantle of teacher this deviation can become a recommended path, not proven by true realization, but carved well enough to trick the unwary eye.

Within alchemy this has been the standard course for centuries. Disregarding the full breadth of the Tradition many have come forward with their ‘stones’ speaking as if they had attained the Truth while never even touching it’s farthest border. From chemical chimeras to psychological sophistry the pageant of false initiation runs the entire line of imagination’s potential. For all the color in these creations they remain illusory answers that will never attain to Truth.

What happens when the image of a Tradition is not properly reflected? We are lead astray. When this straying attends to something like the nature of the Alchemical Tradition this path can be very harmful.

On the personal level a misstep in praxis can lead one down an endless and unfruitful path, when a person on this false path has the charisma, resources or support to influence society the consequences are much more dire. Today’s shortsighted scientism is an example of this problem, a problem that Isaac Newton foresaw when he warned Robert Boyle about being too bold in his experiments and impatient with revealing his results.

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One in Essence, Three in Aspect

From the Art of Transformations study group, an exploration of the Emerald Tablet (using the Sigismund Bacstrom translation)

The Secret Works of CHIRAM – One in essence, but three in aspect.

It is true, no lie, certain and to be depended upon, the superior agrees with the inferior, and the inferior agrees with the superior, to effect that one truly wonderful work.

As all things owe their existence to the will of the only one, so all things owe their origin to the one only thing, the most hidden by the arrangement of the only God.

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Three Paths of the Magic of Light

Picture Credit: Golden-Dawn.Org

Responsibility is essential in developing society.  One of the most difficult responsibilities we’re faced with is the Socratic maxim to ‘know thy self‘.

In this Philosophical Dialogue titled “The Three Paths of the Magic of Light”, originally presented on V.H. Frater I.C.L.’s Tales of Abiegnus site, we find a wonderful way to begin investigating and understanding the responsibilities we are presented with by the  vocations we’re lead to through our innate inclinations.

Many thanks to V.H. Frater I.C.L. for allowing us to repost this helpful dialogue. 

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The Three Paths of the Magic of Light

***

Kasmillos: In our Order their are many magicians, but I am beginning to discover that they do not all practice the Royal Art in the same manner.

Straphalos: Indeed, there are several ways to approach mastery of the self and the Spirit.

Kasmillos: But, we all learn the same techniques, we practice the same rituals, we endure the same initiations. Why is it, then, that we do not all walk the path in a similar way?

Straphalos: Our bond is in our destination. Our individuality is expressed in the manner of our journey. We are not like a church, we do not impose our personal enlightenment on all. Everyone’s Revelation is unique. The invokation of Spirit, Power and Light will reveal different things to different people.

Kasmillos: So we all start at the same place, greatly diverge and end up at the same point?

Straphalos: In a sense. Although, it is a mistake to believe that anything a person comes up with on this Path is automatically worthy and right. We all fall short at some point, usually at many points. That is why the Power of True Discernment is so greatly sought for and envied by those who see the most clearly on this Path.

Kasmillos: So how do we judge truly the manner in which we follow this Path?

Straphalos: Pray and invoke the Higher Light for the Gift of Discernment; you will need it.

Kasmillos: All well and good for when I do achieve it. But, what of until then?

Straphalos: Over the millenia of the Western Mysteries, it is clear that out of the many ways to pursue the Great Work, a few show themselves to be more effective and blessed than others. If you contemplate these paths and try them, you will not go wrong. Though, you may find that one is more right for you than that which you initially chose.

Kasmillos: What are these paths?

Straphalos: They are three in number: The Path of Active Invokation, the Passive or Internal Path, and the Path of the Practical Magician. All magicians who specialize in one of these three ways still work elements from the others, but their personal gifts, character, and motivation will distill out one path that particularly characterizes their journey. One that fits them better than the others.

Kasmillos: What is the nature of the Path of Active Invokation?

Straphalos: This is the most common way to pursue our Mysteries. It is characterized by the frequent use of our rituals for the general development of the powers of our souls. Those on this path are exhorted to “Invoke and Invoke often!” for this sets up a standing wave of vibration in our Sphere of Sensation that ever elevates our consciousness and powers until we stand in the presence of the Ancient of Days, interwoven with Light and in unity with our Higher Genius. This path is pursued by the frequent and reverential practice of developmental ritual magics.

Kasmillos: What, then is the nature of the Passive or Internal Path? Do they not also practice ritual?

Straphalos: Yes, they do, but their focus is different. Those who pursue this path are far more meditative. Their emphasis is on stillness of the body, while their conciousness is trained by internal practices to open up to the Infinite Spirit. They draw upon the ceaseless stream of splendor that descends to us from God. Where others merely put out their hands to sip from this treasury, the practitioner of this path reaches out with great vessels to harvest far more of the vast bounty that continually surrounds us. Outwardly, their life appears charmed and effortless. They are like a leaf blown by the Breath of God. Always they appear at the right time and place, always they possess what they need and plenty more to share with others generously. They learn, by their focus, to surrender to God’s Infinite Mind, and in so doing they find perfect peace. Instead of rising up the planes from strength to strength as the Active Invoker, they simply appear in God’s Presence, traveling through the realms between without moving.

Kasmillos: How then, does the Path of the Practical Magician differ?

Straphalos: This is a very useful and attractive path to those who still bear many mundane dreams, yet also desire to rise above the material in time. They are the clearest about their goals and desires and learn to focus their Magical Will most strongly. To them, the journey is not about a starting point and an end point with an epic adventure in between. Their path is characterized by a series of goals, accomplishments they wish to manifest in stages: smaller dreams in succession which add up to Greatness. These smaller accomplishments act individually as rungs in a ladder, each one propelling them forward to greater understanding of the world and themselves. Magicians on this path tend to focus on practical, as opposed to developmental, magics. Their work and practice is about manifesting specific things and conditions of a practical nature to their needs as well as for the benefit of others. Consequently, they tend to be the most relevant to the non-initiate, for their efforts improve mundane lives and make communities more prosperous.

Kasmillos: So the Practical Magician is the most service oriented?

Straphalos: All of them are, and all of them aren’t. A magician can be equally selfish or philanthropic in any of these paths. Active Invokers can be concerned only with their own empowerment, or they they can use their power to heal bodies and upflift souls. They have the greatest chance of showing the Divine Light to others and changing the spiritual direction of those around them. They are like a Light Shining in the Darkness. Followers of the Passive Path can isolate themselves like monks living in the world interacting rarely with those outside of themselves, or they can mingle with an open heart among the lost, welcoming those whom God brings to them serendipitously to comfort and guide. They have the greatest chance of bringing Peace Profound to the tired and world weary, and healing the wounded heart. They are like a Well of Living Water, that those lost in the desert of their own jaded nightmares stumble to and are refreshed and awakened. Practical Magicians can gather for themselves of the world’s good for their own consumption and gratifcation only, or they can turn and share their manifest bounty with those in need. They can raise up Temples and Hospices and liberate those enslaved by poverty and misfortune. They have the greatest chance of ensuring the continuation of the Mysteries for they have the means to establish the institutions and facilities that give permanence to things. And they provide the most tangible proofs to the non-initiated of the efficacy and relevance of our Path. They are like a Font of Prosperity blessing any community of which they are part.

Kasmillos: So none of these three Paths is greater than the other.

Straphalos: Indeed none. And, further, elements of all three must be learned by all who would call themselves “Magician of Light”. But, one will fit most naturally with you and become the way in which you best and most efficaciously interact with the Spirit and the World.

Kasmillos: How can I choose which one to follow most closely?

Straphalos: Invoke often, meditate in stillness, and discern your goals clearly so that you may pursue them by the combination of conscientious magic and worldly action.

Kasmillos: In otherwords follow all three paths?

Straphalos: Indeed, and in so doing God, by your Holy Angel, will Light your Way.

***

V.H. Frater I.C.L. is an alchemist and adept in the Golden Dawn Tradition. A teacher of Ceremonial Magic and Alchemy for 14 years, he has been a student of Magic, Alchemy and Metaphysical Healing his whole life.

Alchemical Invocations of Vox Populi – Leland’s Aradia & the Creation of the Folk

“If the lawful order (κόσμος) hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.

If ye were of the lawful order (κόσμος), the lawful order (κόσμος) would love his own: but because ye are not of the lawful order(κόσμος), but I have chosen you out of the lawful order (κόσμος), therefore the world hateth you.

Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.

But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me. “

- John 15:18-21

Most reading the charming reprinting of Charles Leland’s Aradia, Gospel of the Witches easily forget how far we are from rural Italy in the 19th century,  from the world inhabited by those who remember the Ancient Ways, perhaps more telling, how far we are from the lives of the dispossessed in our own time.  Leland’s disarming erudition of Margherita Taluti’s information lulls us into gentle repose, arrested only by the sudden bursts of light when the reality of Margherita’s world sneaks through our contemporary dream.

In those days there were on earth many rich and many poor.

The rich made slaves of all the poor.

In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every palace tortures, in every castle prisons.

Many slaves escaped. They fled to the country; thus they became thieves and evil folks. Instead of sleeping by night, they plotted escape and robbed their masters, and then slew them. So they dwelt in the mountains and forest as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery.

An educated Western audience may find it uncouth that such things would be spoken aloud, but they aren’t spoken aloud, they are passed in secret, sub-rosa, in silence. Leland’s passion for various groups on the fringes of the society of his day, the Romany, the Native American, American Voodoo and European witches, gave him a strong sense of Romanticism for the struggles of the people, and provides him with the raw materials for an invocation of this struggle through his writing.

This is not the genteel voice of an educated Marxist lamenting capitalism, nor the hopeful philosophies of Utopian sustainability, this is Lex Talonis, justice driven by the Left Hand under the auspices of Divine Right. This is the uninhibited outcry of those who labor, live and die without ever seeing the fruits of their work, and watching daily while an uncaring elite sit in abstract control over their destinies.

During the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century, escaped slaves met in the mountains and gathered strength while plotting to overthrow the Colonial French. During a ceremony in the northern mountains at Bois Caiman, which has since passed into a national myth, the freedom fighters called on the gods of their homeland to give them strength, protection and the vigor to overthrown their oppressors.

According to accounts of the ceremony “a woman started dancing languorously in the crowd, taken by the spirits of the loas. With a knife in her hand, she cut the throat of a pig and distributed the blood to all the participants of the meeting who swore to kill all the whites on the island.”

- History of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution

An interesting thing about Leland is that he’s writing from a place of experience. He was active during the American Civil War, both as a propagandist and journalist for the North and as a soldier, and was in Paris during the French uprising in 1848 where he participated in street fighting against the Royalist supporters.

In all of these revolutionary moments, however, we must be honest and recognize that the people do not stir on their own cognizance.  Even the Haitian revolution was spurred on by educated Haitians who invoked the power of their traditions to stir the people.  It takes someone to spark the collective consciousness, and that someone is more often than not a sympathetic member of the literati.

The tradition that Leland invokes in Aradia is an idealistic tradition of the people.  Unbound by the historical accuracy or literary criticism through the character of Margherita Taluti, who is herself unbound through the mask of Aradia, he attempts to give voice to a deeper current of thought running through the cultural narrative. Just as the African Diaspora Traditions easily slide between Christian saints and African gods, Aradia presents the picture of a living tradition that invokes the Spirits by their Signs without regard for any cultural designations.  These are not the civilized gods of Empires, but the unrefined forces of Nature herself.

Despite the hesitation of some contemporary pagans over the use of the name Lucifer in the text, the marriage of Lucifer and Diana is not necessarily an amalgam of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. In Latin Lucifer can be interpreted as “Light Bearer” an epitaph for Apollo (also called Φοίβος, Phoibos, “radiant”) who is the brother of Artemis, Artemis being another name for Diana.  With Italian being so close to Latin, it may be that the use of Lucifer actually predates the Christian tradition.

Another appellation given to Apollo is “born of the wolf”, and in pre-Hellenistic times (as Jake Stratton-Kent points out in his work Geosophia) Apollo had a definitive role in Cthonic (underworld) rites. The designation given in Aradia of Diana’s husband with “one who of old once reigned in Hell,” may be a subtle clue that it is this Cthonic Apollo, the Oracular Apollo, who is being called upon.

The Invocation to Aradia hints at this when it says, “may there be  one of three signs distinctly clear to me: the hiss of a serpent, the light of a firefly, the sound of a frog” The Serpent was sacred to Apollo, and the connection of the firefly to the “light bearer” is self evident, the frog is sacred to Hekate, a Cthonic Greek goddess who, like Diana, is connected to magical rites and nocturnal pursuits.

If this seems a bit academic for folk wisdom, it may very well be. Leland’s recounting may be every bit as free as his critics contend. In his work English Gipsy Songs he laments that none of the Romany he spoke with  could give an adequate representation of their tradition.  “Not finding what I wanted, I had given up the intention of forming such a collection, when the perusal of a few excellent Rommany ballads by a friend who may fairly claim to be among the ” deepest” of the deep in the language, as well as others by Professor Palmer and Miss Janet Tuckey, suggested to me the idea that poetry, impressed with true Gipsy spirit, and perfectly idiomatic, might be written and honestly classed as Rommany, even though not composed by dwellers in tents or caravans. The experiment was made, great care being taken to avoid anything like theatrical Gipsyism, or fanciful idealisation.”

There are many correspondences in Aradia to beliefs common to European and early American folk magic which Leland would have been familiar with through his extensive reading and passion for the “occult.” The Charm of the Stones Sacred to Diana is surprisingly similar to the seer stone used by  Josepth Smith for treasure hunting and scrying while dictating the Book of Mormon. Leland’s niece recounts that he, “not only studied witchcraft with the impersonal curiosity of the scholar, but practiced it with the zest of the initiated,” so it would not be surprising if a bit of his own practice seeped in to the reworking of Margherita’s account of Italian witchcraft.

In fact Leland, in his memoirs, tells of his own ownership of such a stone, only he calls it a “voodoo stone,” and based on the timing of the tale he tells (at the end of the Civil War) his possession of it predates by many years his time in Italy:

“Now, to-day I hold and possess the black stone of the Voodoo, the possession of which of itself makes me a grand-master and initiate or adept…”

- Memoirs, Charles Leland

Similarly the Conjuration of Diana which calls for water, wine and salt, bears resemblance to invocation techniques used by folk magicians discussed in George Oliver’s book from 1875, The Pythagorean Triangle: “It appears that in the time when conjurers could profitably exercise their art, they used to raise spirits within a circle nine feet in diameter, which they consecrated by sprinkling with a mixture of holy water, wine, and salt; that they might be protected from any onslaught of the fiend.

This combination of ingredients is found in Christian exorcism rites practiced by the Catholic church, or more pointedly rites which would have been found in the Episcopalian tradition that Leland adopted during his time at Princeton:

These four—water, wine, salt, and ashes—were the ingredients of the Exorcising Water to expel the enemy from a Church at its consecration ; the water symbolising the outpouring of tears, and so penitence ; the wine, exultation of mind ; the salt, natural discretion or wisdom; and the ashes, the humility of penitence.

- The symbolism of churches and church ornaments, Guillaume Durandus

And these three can also be equated in alchemical terms to Mercury (water), Sulphur, (wine) and Salt, which in the Paracelsian tradition are the three essential elements that form the basis of reality prior to the four elements of fire, water, earth and air. The rectification of these three also forms the basis of the Philosopher’s Stone. Leland was well acquainted with Paracelsus by the time he wrote Aradia, we find him discussing Gnosticism and NeoPlatonism at Princeton while still a student:

When (Professor Dodd) asked me how it was that I had renegaded into Trinitarianism, I replied that it was due to reflection on the perfectly obvious and usual road of the Platonic hypostases eked out with Gnosticism. I had…learned…that ” it was a religious instinct of man to begin with a Trinity, in which I was much aided by Schelling, and that there was no trace of a Trinity in the Bible, or rather the contrary, yet that it ought consistently to have been there…For man or God consists of the Monad from which developed spirit or intellect and soul; for toto enim in mundo Ivcet Trias cujus Monas est princeps, as the creed of the Rosicrucians begins (which is taken from the Zoroastrian oracles)…and it is set forth on the face of every Egyptian temple as the ball, the wings of the spirit which rusheth into all worlds, and the serpent, which is the Logos.”

- Memoirs, Charles Leland

Here we see the core of Leland’s belief, “there was no trace…yet…it ought consistently to have been there.” Aradia is a classic work of Pastoral poetry, the work of an educated Romantic who longs for the Golden Age of Nature. Through the use of vox populi he takes the unrefined elements of folk culture and, in an alchemical moment of myth building, creates what “should be there.” He separates out the dross of true poverty and seeks the essence of hunger, desperation and wisdom that exists in the lives of the dispossessed.

Leland takes what the common people already know, but have no chance to define, and  shows them a reflection of themselves. Reworking their traditions with the purpose of returning to them the freedom that they already have, while undermining the bonds of control that have been put on them by social conventions that laud ostentation while rejecting the simplicity of life.  It is therefore no surprise that Aradia has had a foundational affect on contemporary witchcraft, that was the very purpose of the book.

Margherita Taluti’s information alone could not complete his vision, but it provided the ground and reality from which he could perfect the Work. It contained the Prima Materia missing from his own experience and provided the Key. Leland’s practice is no different than Ovid, Homer, Chaucer, Boccacio, Shakespeare, or any of the great Traditional Poets who took the popular mythologies and legends of their time and re-veiled them.

As he remarked to one of his fellow folklorists, “I am proud to be a first pointer-out – just as I am of having been acknowledge to be the first discoverer of Shelta…also of Italian-Latin witch lore and mythology, which latter has not as yet been credited to me, but will be some day.

Through an alchemical invocation of the popular voice Charles Leland created a vision for the dispossessed to lay claim to. His ‘gospel of the witches‘ was the ‘good news‘ of the free spirit, the reclamation of the Edenic purity of Humanity that “shall dance, sing, make music, and then love in the darkness.”  It is the message to the establishment that “the true God the Father is not yours; for I have come to sweet away the bad, the men of evil, all will I destroy!” It’s a mark of success that Leland’s work has been reviled by the Academy, he wasn’t writing it for them, he was writing it for the People.

Note: The folks at Red Wheel/Weiser were kind enough to provide a copy of Charles Leland’s Aradia, Gospel of the Witches for research and review. Check out Bob Freeman’s review of Aradia and  Freeman Presson’s review as well.

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Initiation, Art and the Inner Ontological Shift

An Interview with Sasha Chaitow, Academic Director of the Phoenix Rising Digital Academy:

In our technologically ravaged age we often lose sight of the inner resources necessary to fully express our creativity and intellect. With the ease that comes with digital art, the deeper connections that the creative process requires and engenders is something that can be passed over in the lust for immediate results.

Studies in the humanities are facing strained support from the mainstream Academy. As scientism increases its stranglehold on our culture we hear the continuous hum of critique that philosophy, poetry and literature have had their day, it’s time for more practical concerns.  In this environment it has become more important than ever for serious scholars to seek outside the Academy to create institutions that support and encourage society to continue seeking a deeper understanding of life that goes beyond corporate interests or shallow scientific discoveries.

Sascha Chaitow is director of the Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, an online initiative to “to reinstate appreciation and scholarship of philosophy and culture.”  Phoenix Rising allows scholars a place to continue to address the depth of culture, and, through digital communications, presents a new avenue for these discussions to happen on a global scale.

The potential of the Esoteric Renaissance is well represented by individuals who embrace the full spectrum of our times. As an artist, scholar and innovator, Sasha has embraced the potential of technology to explore areas that many futurists neglect in their forecasts.  In the following conversation Sasha discusses her artistic practice and provides insight into the interstices of art, culture and Tradition.

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What inspired you to pursue painting?

Synaesthesia and music. I’ve always been synaesthetic – a quality (aka condition!) meaning that I associate sensory input from one sense with that of another. In my case, it means that I visualize images, colours and shapes, when hearing sound or reading text.  It all began with Jim Morrison’s poetry when I was 14, and I later traced his sources and drew inspiration from the Beat authors, then moved to Blake, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and John Milton. This led to an enduring interest in the Fallen Angels mythos and Gnostic cosmology, which was also essentially my lead-in to the study of esotericism. I quickly reached a point where the images my mind would generate when reading poetry in particular would form in a constant cascade, which I felt compelled to bring into reality. I have always accompanied my paintings with excerpts from the texts or poems or song lyrics that inspired them because for me they are an integral part of the work itself.

How can the artistic process aid in initiation?

In its most simple form, initiation is an inner ontological shift – one which I conceive of as an ongoing, immanent process. Traditionally (within the Western Esoteric Tradition), initiation for the individual is supposed to be a process of understanding, connecting and uniting body, mind and spirit so as to produce a very special kind of perception of the world and our own existence – something that Patrick Harpur calls “a different way of seeing” which Joseph Campbell also describes beautifully in Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Now, the creative process leads to several leaps of faith and a lot of inner work, whether one is esoterically minded or not. The process of creating anything is an extremely powerful one, which demands that the artist (or musician or poet or writer) reach past his/her very self into that invisible realm of Ideas that Henri Corbin termed the Imaginal mesocosm. It requires a very specific frame of mind and way of seeing the world – one which I believe artists of all kinds do naturally. For it to become an initiatory process however, the artist needs to consciously examine the thought processes that s/he follows when “visited by the Muse.” This inevitably leads to soul-searching questions, many of which are difficult and which I suspect lie at the heart of the “tortured artist” stereotype. Yet if one persists, one becomes conscious of being a part of the creative impulse within Nature itself – one comes to understand the imagination quite intimately, and in the process, learns a lot about oneself.

Initiation has become very strongly embedded within formalized ritual in a good number of esoteric systems, but to my mind the act of creating an art-form is a ritual in and of itself, even if the motions of that ritual involve laying out the tools of one’s trade, creating an atmosphere appropriate for working in, tuning one’s instrument, rather than what we would traditionally consider ritualistic acts. Hence, following a number of esoteric thinkers over the centuries, I am quite convinced that the creative process is a powerful, if not a supreme, initiatory vehicle for anyone with a predisposition to explore it, and I also believe it is also open to everyone, regardless of talent and artistic bent; hence its healing power as witnessed in the various art therapy systems. It is not the technical result which is important, but conscious engagement with the creative process.

What inspires your art?

Symbolism, wordplay, double entendres and palimpsestic meaning.  Or, put another way, anagogical thinking (See Angela Voss’ excellent essay on the topic). I am far less interested in exploring visual techniques than I am in finding new and surprising ways to communicate layered meaning so as to surprise and engage the viewer.

I see visual art as a language and draw heavily from the emblematic and esoteric symbolic traditions in order to tell whole, layered stories –  through a painting. I like dealing with uncomfortable or equivocal meanings that somehow relate to central esoteric concepts; the question of evil for example, or that of initiation itself. A number of my more recent paintings deal with the initiatory journey itself, and I have made use of a number of ancient and archetypal symbolic conventions presented in portrait form. Even if the viewer does not consciously comprehend each of the symbols, it is my belief that in some way they resonate with the unconscious mind.

Are there specific art movements that focus more heavily on the “artist as initiate” than others or is this a common theme in art?

Although it has appeared a number of times as a source of inspiration, I don’t think I would go as far as to say that it is a common theme as such, though I would be surprised if the sensations and thought-processes I have mentioned above are not familiar to all artists, regardless of the technique or philosophy they choose to express. Looking back in time there are artists whom we may consider initiates on account of their depth of esoteric insight, yet they may have considered themselves tradesmen or artisans, or something else entirely.

Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Poussin are some such examples. Artistic movements that show a clear awareness of this concept make their appearance in the 18th century, as part of the early counter-Enlightenment, and those aspects of Romanticism that were most influenced by Illuminism. It was widely discussed by Fabre d’Olivet, Saint-Martin and elaborated by Novalis, Schlegel, and Pierre-Simon Ballanche. The poet was respectively seen as “the recipient and transmitter of revelation and a divine universal language,” “a priest who will lead humanity to its eschatological fulfillment by relinking the world here below and divine transcendence,” while “poetry is the intuitive faculty of penetrating the essence of beings and things. 1

In addition, the 19th century French Symbolist movement was almost entirely inspired by this concept as put forward by Josephin Peladan, an eccentric and greatly misunderstood figure in the history of both esotericism and art. Peladan’s work and vision is in fact the topic of my PhD thesis, in which I hope to rehabilitate his image, to some extent at least!

Who are your favorite “artist initiates”?

To answer that it depends how strict I should be about defining the term “initiates”, as I believe that all artists are initiates, whether they realise it or not,  not only restricted to those movements which consciously attempted to utilise art to such ends. They would certainly include the Renaissance Masters, especially figures such as Gustave Dore, Bosch and El Greco, the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (Rossetti in particular), and a good many figures from the Symbolist movement,  such as Jean Delville, Gustave Moreau, Carlos Schwabe, Nikolai Konstantin Kalmakoff, and Nikolai Roerich.

One cannot leave out the poets such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, nor the musicians and dancers, such as Stravinsky and Nijinsky. Then, of course, there is Wagner, who, controversies aside, was also an immensely influential figure for the 19th century symbolist movement and whose theories Peladan developed.

Are there any contemporary artists that you think elaborate on this idea?

Indeed, though there are different categories: those artists who may have no knowledge nor interest in these concepts, yet whose art communicates breathtaking insights, artists who deliberately seek to use their art as a mode for communicating these ideas, and those who go as far as to incorporate art and ritual as well as to develop these concepts still further.

Some wonderful contemporary artists who depict overtly alchemical and other esoteric themes include  Laurence Caruana, Eleonore Weil, Vincenzo Marano, Karena Karras, and Madeline von Foerster, among many others. I think this concept is also at the heart of the performance art so frequently found in occulture and pagan festivals in recent years.

How are the visual arts like alchemy?

Although there is a danger of oversimplification in terms of historical and cultural relationships between the two, nonetheless both art and alchemy have immense transformative powers, and both require the uninterrupted input of the active imagination (see Dr Voss’s article linked to above, as well as the seminal article by Henri Corbin – Mundis Imaginalis ), which in turn,  they both enrich.

Both art and alchemy are processes of becoming, of manifestation and of metamorphosis, which only yield as much as is put in. Both of them are acts of Poïesis (creation or manifestation), and the supreme act of love, according to Socrates, is “a begetting in the soul which strives for the Forms, the only way to possess immortality and true happiness.” 2 In this sense, they are alternative routes to the same end, making use of the same driving force (Eros) in order to reconcile dualities and imperfections in matter and in Man, and a means to achieving immortality, whether in the form of an image which by its nature is timeless, or of the Philosophers’ Stone, which in this case is a clearly symbolic and philosophical end in itself.

Do you think that today’s alchemical practitioners have the view of becoming “conscious (intermediaries) in the process of redeeming dualities between man and nature, matter and the divine.”?

I daresay that depends on the practitioner! That particular process could be described as being the epitome of medieval and Renaissance alchemical practice, wherein it would be unthinkable to separate theory and practice, and those who did focus on practice for material gain were disdained as charlatans of the lowest order!

In modern times, the opposite seems to have occurred, as thanks to Jung the spiritual aspect of alchemy has by and large been isolated and cut off from its practical side. The reason this is misguided, even though it has its own value as a spiritual-psychological way of seeing the world, is because Nature – material nature and her correspondences with both Man and the Divine – are at the heart of alchemical work.  To truncate that means that one is no longer practicing alchemy, but a form of spirituality inspired by alchemy.

Is it possible for art to have the same effect?

I firmly believe that it is, with one major caveat, as expressed above. The artist is always in danger of losing touch with material reality, and many artists do truly suffer from the “tortured poet” syndrome. One esoteric explanation for this relates to the effect of the spiritus mundi: expressed beautifully by Franz von Baader:

“[E]very true poet or artist never escapes a doubled affect or emotion. Each yearning after the manifestation or incarnation of the Idea [Sophia] in any case has the complementary effect of pain and even anger against the refracting Substance.”

Baader is referring to both the imperfection of the manifested image compared to the Idea, as well as the ‘labour pains’ experienced in the conflict with the spiritus mundi, explained by Arthur Versluis as corresponding to “the demiurge of the ancient Gnostics: the power of selfishness, of acquisitiveness and of power-over.” 3The manifestation of this effect is the dark, melancholic, Saturnian  side of art, abounding with ‘metaphysical despair,’ or ‘incandescent melancholia’ explained in modern terms as ‘the expression of the attitudes, the feelings and the ideas of a man who has left static mechanism but has not yet arrived at a reintegration of his thought and art in terms of dynamic organicism. 4 Its alchemical correspondence is of course the nigredo phase of the prima materia – so necessary and brimming with potentiality which can be manifested once the dark night of the soul (allegorical, figurative, or literal) can be overcome.

  1. 1. Antoine Fabre d’Olivet, La langue hebraïque restituée, (1815-1816) F. Schlegel, Novalis, Athenaeum (1798-1800)
  2. 2 Robert Cavalier, “The Nature of Eros ,” http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/80250/Plato/Symposium/Sym2.html
  3. 3 Franz von Baader, ‘On a Lasting and Universal Spiritual Manifestation Here Below,’     in Arthur Versluis ed., trans., Wisdom’s Book, pp. 241-247 (p. 245) – Arthur Versluis, Wisdom’s Book, p. 16
  4. 4 Morse Peckham, ‘Towards a Theory of Romanticism,’ repr. in. Gleckner and Enscoe, Romanticism: Points of View (Detroit, 1962) p. 242 cited in Wouter Hanegraaff, ‘Romanticism and the Esoteric Tradition,’ Gnosis and Hermeticism, pp. 245-7 (p246)

Sasha Chaitow is the founding director  of Phoenix Rising.

Sasha Chaitow  is a graduate of EXESESO MA Western Esotericism (Exeter) and MA English Literature (Indianapolis-Athens).  She is assistant professor in Religious Studies at the University of Indianapolis Athens, and also an artist, writer, and events organiser. Her research interests include art and esotericism, mind and consciousness, ritual and initiation, and Modern Greek Masonic history.She is also an artist, painting portraits on commission and alchemically surrealist-symbolic images on inspiration. Sasha directed the 1st International Phoenix Rising Conference entitled “A Dying Society or a Renaissance for the 21st Century, ” which took place on 6th & 7th November 2009, in Athens, Greece. She was also coordinator for Greece for the 2008 Esoteric Quest Conference, on the theme of Ancient Greek Mysteries and Philosophy, hosted by the New York Open Centre and which took place on Samothrace, Greece.

Phoenix Rising Digital Academy

Online courses in Western Esotericism, Philosophy and Art are made globally available by an international faculty of accomplished scholars seeking to reinstate appreciation and scholarship of philosophy and culture.

This independent academic initiative is a direct response to the closure of many university programmes in the Liberal Arts across Western universities, and to the perceived need for better academic representation of neglected aspects of Western Esoteric Traditions outside formalised academia. Phoenix Rising Academy is the first such initiative globally to combine serious scholarship of these topics at entry-level with digital learning technology. For 2011 the Academy offers 39 courses covering numerous topics across the spectrum of Esotericism and the Arts, ranging from introductory courses in Esoteric topics to Occultism in pop culture and more.

In a time of cultural crisis and widespread misinformation, this Academy’s purpose is to offer accessible and accurate information on a broader scale, with an active interest in bridging the widening gap in the humanities. Online and live events and intensive seminars are in planning for various locations in the UK and Greece.

Visit www.phoenixrising.org.gr for full course listings and detailed information about the Academy’s philosophy, structure, faculty and activities.

In Torches, Candles, Spectacles…

illustration from The Secret Fire – An Alchemical Study, by E. J. Langford Garstin

Axes to the Ladder of Light – Wrecked Rungs & Missed Opportunities

“As our most ancient Stone is not derived from combustible things, you should cease to seek it in substances which cannot stand the test of fire. For this reason it is absurd to suppose that we can make any use of vegetable substances, though the Stone, too, is endowed ‘with a principle of growth.

If our Stone were a vegetable substance, it would, like other vegetables, be consumed by fire, leaving only a certain salt. Ancient writers have, indeed, described our Stone as the vegetable Stone. But that name was suggested to them by the fact that it grows and increases in size, like a plant.

Know also that animals only multiply after their kind, and within their own species. Hence our Stone can only be prepared out of its own seed, from which it was taken in the beginning; and hence also you will perceive that the soul of an animal must not be the subject of this investigation. Animals are a class by themselves; nor can anything ever be obtained from them that is not animal in its nature.” - from The Golden Tripod, by Basil Valentinus

“The study of the organs will not teach us about the inner essence of man any more than the mere observation of the letters in a sentence can convey its meaning to one who does not know how to read. The only possibility of knowledge lies in sinking into one’s own interiority in order to follow from there the mysterious ways leading toward the material body.” –  from First Steps Toward the Experience of the “Subtle Body,” in Introduction to Magic, ed. Julius Evola

“Seek and ye shall find…”

The questions presented to the truth seeker are simple, “What truth is it that you seek?” and “Why do you seek it?” Science, as understood up until the triumph of rationalism, was a study of the unity of being. With such an understanding any starting point leads towards self study, the same mechanics that exist in the celestial domain are applicable to the individual consciousness if the proper meditation is followed.

There is much scholarly debate over whether the alchemists went beyond early chemistry, if their Art was more than a coded form of chemical lab work. This question seems to ignore the mindset of those who sought the Stone. Spiritual alchemy i s the Art of ancient chemistry applied to the development of the human spirit. It’s historical basis is implied in the thoroughness of the ancient conception of the universe and it’s unity.

What we all too often miss in historical analysis is that the end of the Great Work is the restoration of unity, the solution is succinctly given by Socrates, “Know thy self.” This self knowledge, however, is unified  with the knowledge of the whole.

Even if chemistry were the sole end, a deeper understanding of the Art always leads back to an understanding of ourselves. This is all too often lost in contemporary science, this sense of an in depth understanding of our own place in the discovery. The focus on material ends used to be known as vulgar mathematics, the study of number for material ends outside of contemplation.

Alchemy has been so overladden with alternative narratives, be they psychological, theosophic, therapeutic or general new age, it’s a welcome change that the historical roots are being more clearly exposed. The difficulty is in maintaining a clear picture of the Art and not allowing historicism to take away from it’s full exposition.

Every Art holds the potential to act as a ladder to enlightenment, but it’s very easy to take an axe to the rungs by cutting out the steps leading up to the end or by limiting the reach of the ladder. Every angle of analysis has to be properly aligned; giving too much weight to one over another creates an imbalanced view. Historicism is valuable for tracing the roots of ideas, for gaining a better understanding of their development, their affects over time, however it can be very damning to the search for the application of those ideas in practice.

Similarly too much focus on practice and self revelation can limit the full flowering of an idea. Without a clear view of the whole, including historical antecedents, we remain outside the organic development of life that can be traced through looking at the past. False teachers set themselves up on our lack of historical memory and much confusion comes from not understanding the basic origins of an idea.

We all too often throw out what could be reused or reawoken. I was recently struck by an article that Peter Stockinger posted regarding Raymond Lull’s Art of Memory. In it Chiromancy, or palm reading, is turned into a mnemonic device. Similarly when reading Richard Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche, what I found most revealing was his concept of reinvigorating the astrological cosmology with a sense of psychology, reformulating what is commonly considered superstition into a powerful cultural mnemonic device capable of acting as a tool for psychological therapy, very close to what Giordano Bruno recommends in his work, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast.

In any interpretation the answers given to the questions presented to the truth seeker provide a guide to what will be discovered. We should be careful that our answers and our methods of seeking don’t blind us to the revelations that lay close at hand.


Subtle Sounds

There’s a subtle power to sound, it goes straight to the brain and a skilled musician can motivate visions, emotions and even physical responses in their listeners. Alan Lomax’s book, The Land Where the Blues Began, has a great description of how the old blues players would work the crowd with their songs. By choosing music that fit what they needed, they’d get the audience into a rhythm and watch how they reacted to the music, when the time was right they’d sing lyrics that expressed what they wanted from the crowd, if it was money they’d sing about getting money, if it was food or drink they’d do the same, if they wanted someone to take home after the show, well it was just a matter of choosing the right song.

Speculative Exomusicology

While doing research for an Alarm Magazine article on “Audible Color” I had the opportunity to speak with Professor William Sethares of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Sethares studies acoustical engineering and has spent a number of years looking at how sound is interpreted by the listener.

One of the interesting things to come out of this study is his idea of speculative exomusicology, a thought experiment that looks to recreate music from outside the Earth. This concept helps Sethares  move past traditional boundaries of musical structure and allows him free reign to play with the mathematical underpinnings of tone, harmony and timbre themselves.

Immediately I think of Sun Ra and his Afro-Futurist explorations of Egyptian magic, idealized Africa and the Celestial Spaces. Talking to Sethares was an opportunity to better understand  the ability to build structures and landscapes with sound and to open up new spaces through music.

Landscapes of Sound

Looking at the Swans upcoming album the same can be applied to what Michael Gira has been doing. The vocals seem to drift in this landscape of sound. He looks at sound in a very physical way, and builds up layers of aural expression as one might layer stone on stone to build a wall. If you go back through the Swans catalog you can hear this interesting development of visceral sound experimentation. In his solo work, and his work with The Angels of Light, he was able to really explore the art of song-craft. On My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to Heaven he brings it all together with powerful results.

Jhonn Balance and Peter Christopherson of Coil used their idea of sidereal sounds to build transcelestial landscapes with their music, Medieval polyphony excites  images of harmony and utopian ideals, and singers like Rene Zosso bring alive the Troubadours’ highly visual music. The more I think about it, the more I start seeing the same in most artists who have truly mastered their medium. This is especially true when you look at traditional music from around the world.

Knowledge of sound’s ability to build images in the mind, and create landscapes that one can travel through, seems to only be missing in the lowest forms of pop music. Most serious musicians are adept at utilizing this, spiritual movements have taken advantage of this power to bring glimpses of  theophanic visions to the believer, and national movements have built idealized dreams of their nation-states on songs.

Possibilities

An hour or so on the phone with Professor Sethares and my mind was racing with the possibilities. Even in the visual arts the same mastery of the medium is possible. Austin Osman Spare was able to achieve this effect with his subtle use of color and ephemeral line work.  Talented writers and poets do it with words. Ezra Pound’s poem Sestina Altaforte has a good example of the recognition of this process, with Pound declaring at the beginnig:

En Bertans de Born. Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife. Eccovi! Judge ye! Have I dug him up again?

Here we have Pound pointing to the power of words to resurrect the dead. The duration of the reanimation would seem dependent on the artists ability to create a lasting work to carry the intention.

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Integrating Sound and Image

Another enlightening exchange that came from the research was an email interview with Bryan Michael of Alka. He discussed the interplay between sound and image, and the process of integrating the two during a performance.

According to Bryan “the idea of both the visual and musical elements being conceived at the same time seems important. The trick is finding someone that can interpret and translate the tones into viewable elements without them being typical screenplay-style interpretations of the emotions evoked.” Having experienced this myself  during the production process and  live exhibits of A Serious Inquiry into the Vulgar Notion of Nature it was very helpful to hear how he tackled the ups and downs of the process.

alka :: i am a wreck live @ GATE in Philadelphia

This combination provides an interesting area of investigation. Sound itself is capable of so much, combined with visual elements of the same caliber and you get something like Stravinsky and Roerich’s presentation of the Rite of Spring. How can we translate this in contemporary terms?

Learning more about Brian’s interest in Gematria and Pythagorean musical ideas also opened up areas that I wasn’t very familiar with. “The idea of reducing words and incantations to their numerical equivalency and plugging the data into sequencers for audible results” is something that he is working with more. It seems like an idea that has a number of applications across the artistic spectrum, and closely tied to the same techniques that allowed the old blues players to be so effective.

Planetshifter Magazine was kind enough to host the full interview with Bryan, so check it out and learn more about Sound and Incantation – Digital Art as Alchemy.

Broke Incantation

And on an end note – here’s my own Broke Incantation, the latest bit of dabbling I’ve done while experimenting with awkward home recordings: