Quick ponderings on the use of names and language in modern magical discourse

Donald Michael Kraig

Over at the Llewellyn blog Donald Michael Kraig has a wonderful post, Finding Truth – The Path of the Real Magician. Coming at things from a different angle, Don’s post dovetails into our previous post on discrimination. Where I was pretty generic, Don masterfully describes the need for magicians to check internet and literary sources to discover the ‘truth’ for themselves. It’s a great post, so scoot on over and have a look.

Thinking further on these issues, I have also been pondering about the use of names and language in magic and magical literature. As magicians we all know the value of the names. I mean, the Golden Dawn tradition itself has been through a few. Wynn Westcott in responding to a classic Dorothy Dixer letter in 1889 gave the first public mention of the Order as “the Hermetic Students of the G.D”. However, interiorly it was known as ‘the Golden Dawn in the Outer’ with the options of ‘Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn’ or ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ on some letterheads and papers. After Regardie published his compilation, the ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ became sorta fixed. Books will do that. (Nick Farrell discusses it all here).

The commonality of ‘Golden Dawn’ is the important point here, having all sorts of lovely connotations and esoteric meanings, as well as a poetic link to the words at the restoration of the light in the Neophyte ceremony: “Quit the night and seek the day”. The fact that ‘Golden Dawn’ is also the name of a laxative tea, a yellow zucchini and a neo-Nazi political party shouldn’t put one off using it – should it?

Well, actually there are quite a few precedents in occult and magical circles of name changes to avoid being tainted by or confused with other groups and ideas. After the Horos ‘troubles’ and adept ‘rebellion’, Mathers changed the name of his section of the Order to Alpha et Omega, the first and the last, one of the most beautiful and profound titles and symbols of Christ, full of recondite meaning and potential. There are also poetic links to the ‘ao’ or ‘great’ as an appellation of Hermes and other meanings.

The nasty rebels themselves got in on the name changing thing, calling themselves ‘Morgen Rothe’, another reference to ‘dawn’. When the dust settled more name changes had occurred. We had Waite’s  ‘Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn’ or ‘the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn’. Now say what you will about Waite’s verbose writing, these names are really clear and show his belief he was independent of outside control and had restored the Order to a more holy (i.e. mystical) purpose. There was also the Stella Matutina, ‘Star of the Morning’ with obvious connotations of Venus though also referring to the sun, Lucifer and even Christ himself. So we takes our picks, apparently :)

Modern GD tradition Orders have all sorts of names. Some harking back to their antecedents, literary or inspirational, give themselves the same names as the historical Orders. This does not mean they are the original Order of course. Other Orders have moved away from the GD  English nomenclature but are clear in what they do, like Nick Farrell’s Magical Order of Aurora Aurea (Latin for ‘Golden Dawn’). Some Orders, like our own, are not keen on presenting their name to the hoi polloi of the public and have a boring ‘outer’ name in which to open bank accounts etc. There are all sorts of reasons given for this practice, mostly concerning the magical use of secrecy. Personally, it was what I was trained to do, and still feels the most comfortable. At the other end of the spectrum, some magical groups forgo any fancy words at all, like Gareth Knight’s former group, called in almost Hobbit fashion, ‘the Gareth Knight Group’. :)

The way magicians write about their groups, their magic and other groups is also very interesting. Rather than pick on anyone in particular I will show what I mean by quoting the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen’s recent comments on gay marriage:

We ought not to feel that the whole matter is being inevitably going in one direction but that we ought to make our voices known so that we make it clear that the Christian faith opposes this for the good of all.

Now the ol’ Bish is being a bit naughty here. To say “the Christian faith” is to imply all of Christendom thinks the same way, when he knows perfectly well that this is not so. Yet, his clever use of words suggests this. This is the same as me saying, “the Golden Dawn opposes self initiation” when only certain elements of the GD do so, and those that do may have nuanced reasons. The use of language to claim a hegemony is very common among some  Golden Dawn and magical writers, and I think we need to be very aware of it, especially newcomers to the game. It is equally important as discrimination and looking for sources mentioned above. This misuse of language is sometimes very subtle, but powerful as I describe in this post.

A classic example comes from my youth when the late Simon Goodman was still alive and a major player in the Australian Wiccan community. His Sussex Craft tradition had a very simple way of naming its covens. They would talk about ‘the Canberra coven’ or ‘the Perth coven’ or even the ‘Highgate coven’ referring to a specific suburb. They were not called the ‘Perth Sussex coven’ or the ‘Canberra Sussex coven’. The language conveys the idea that there is only one coven in the suburb or city. It was thus a way of Simon subtly expressing his view of the nature and legitimacy of other covens in the same locale. He may not have done this consciously, but it did reflect his personal ideas on the matter. Similarly, if we look carefully at the language used within Golden Dawn discourse, we will occasionally see the same hegemonic attempts. It’s very interesting to watch. Right ho? :)

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One comment

  1. Samuel · June 19, 2012

    Once again a very insightful post. By Names and Images…. this really affects the way that we perceive and understand our magical environment. It is telling the sort of language that one magician or tradition uses when discussing their Work or the Work of others.

    In LVX,
    Samuel

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