Images in Magic : inner and outer

OK… a few thoughts. Maybe it’s the new wonderful artwork by Mike for MOTO’s header, maybe it’s the season, maybe it’s something else, but I have been thinking a lot about images recently. In the GD and magic we use images extensively to connect us with the divine beings and powers – so really I have been thinking more about imagery.

Though I am likely to invoke the wrath of a few anti-Christian nutters out there, it is quite clear that the sources for modern western magic developed within the Christian milieu. The background and backbone of many modern traditions, Rosicrucianism was started by heterodox Christians and is replete with Christian imagery and mysteries. This is a different thing to saying modern western magic is Christian.

One of the features that distinguishes  Christianity from its main parent, Judaism is its use of religious imagery. Judaic (and Islamic) aversion to representations of divinity and divine presences, technically aniconism, is absent in most (modern) Christian traditions. This difference is often explained in terms of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, the ultimate Godhead taking physical form, therefore the physical icon being a fit and holy representation and method to connect with Christ as the One.

Magic with its heterodox Christian, Hermetic and Pagan inspirations often uses images with gay abandon and nary a thought for the spiritual principles behind aniconism. The main applicable principle is that any representation of the divine, the One Thing, must be incomplete and therefore inaccurate and misleading, even offensive. The Hermetic, Christian and pagan approach is different, viewing the images as links to the mystery. Just as a Godform is both limiting the unknowable One and a method of connecting to the One, so too are representations of the Gods and divine beings. This explains the use of magical images associated with Sephiroth in Hermetic Qabalah, something that marks its break from traditional Jewish Kabbalah.

All well and good. However, one of the other concerns of aniconism is that any image, any representation must by necessity involve the human imagination, effort and mind. Since these are limited, the representations are limited and therefore can limit the observers of these images. A specific example is this image of ‘the Horned Lord’.

Love the modern beard.

Now the deity in question has only been around a couple of hundred years at best, being a modern western expression of an eternal reality and presence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, it is clear that this image is temporal in nature, extolling those virtues of masculinity – rugged good looks, a six pack abdomen and sculpted muscles – found in those stereotypes of ideal manhood beloved of Hollywood and men’s magazines. There is no doubt he’s well hung too.

Look also at these images of Isis and other divine or spiritual female beings. They represent modern sexual and physical fantasies of the ideal woman, thin waisted, size 8 with non-saggy tits, as much as they do the Goddess.

Isis with modern sexy underwear

Diana – after Weight Watchers?

A Cat Goddess, apparently (apologies to Bastet)

When we worship and commune with eternal mysteries and presences via temporal images that are pretty much (apart from the horns and embellishments) the same as we see in sexualised magazines, I think there may be problems. This is not because sex is a problem, not because physical beauty is a problem, or even the abs. It is because we mix the realms – being conditioned to respond in a certain way to sexualised and perfect images of the human body, we will respond in the same way when we worship via these images.

Now we can argue it is fine to be sexually aroused and interested during our worship, and that is all right. However, the point is that the sexual impetus is instigated from culturally and temporally conditioned factors, not from a personal and inner connection with the divine. There is a big difference; one locks us into a limited time-space approach to the divine, and the other allows the Gods to inform and inspire our reactions. We should remember that what we see as beautiful and sexy today was not so throughout all history. Ancient Greek depictions of penises were often small because a large penis was considered a sign of barbarianism and a small penis a sign of civility. Skinny women were not considered sexy only a hundred years ago.

I am not only saying that divine images date themselves, but that if we are not careful we make the gods in our own image. Of course, as I mentioned with the Horned Lord, we as a culture do that, and have always done that. However, to use images, attributes and ideas associates with sexual attraction and beauty we are risking making the Gods simply larger, divine images of our pin-up models. There is a (now old) joke that it is telling that Wiccans refer to their deities by the same title they give to their priesthood, Lord and Lady. This is not having a go at Wiccans, simply pointing out how we need to consider our images of the divine very carefully.

The Hebrew word translated as ‘holy’, QDSh or Qodosh has roots that mean to ‘keep separate’, ‘apart’, to ‘make holy’. This is a principle I personally use in my practice. Any images of the divine are separate from those I see in my daily life. The words I use for Christ are Hebrew and Aramaic, to avoid linkage with jokes and blasphemy about ‘Jesus’. This Qodosh principle is used extensively in western magic and modern Neo-paganism, apart from it seems our images of the divine. Why do we keep our tools, robes and talismans separate from the herd, but not our images? Now, I know there are some traditions that use ‘what’s at hand’, and seeing a traditional cunning man literally pick up what’s in the kitchen and work the deepest magic, I understand this. But this is a completely different approach from magic and modern paganism.

Representing the Image

The images we have of divinity naturally affect how we imitate, represent and worship divinity. Traditional religious dress is almost uniformly, regardless of culture and time, a uniform itself. Tibetan monks wear the same robes as other monks. Christian priests wear the same outfit as others of their sect and/or order. Nuns all looked, once upon a time, a little like penguins. The idea of course is to transmute and translate individuality towards a universal transcendent reality, be that God or enlightenment. This is not to say the robes and clothes themselves do not have meaning and symbolism, they most certainly do, only that the meaning is determined by the collective, not the individual.

Again, this is something that many modern Neo-pagans and some magicians have moved away from. Individual robes are often well, just that – individual. Heck, I once wore a paisley satin robe to a Wiccan conference (don’t ask why) 🙂 This expression of individualism is probably very good … I think… in some ways. However, I do worry about it, as the cult of the individual in the west has all sorts of nasty side effects. I am sure we can surrender and transmute our individual nature wearing individually chosen togs, but if they are chosen for lower self reasons, I think we hamper ourselves.

I once participated in wonderful weekend workshop with the Druid Priestess Emma Restall-Orr. I loved the workshop and learned a lot. During the weekend she referred more than once to how she would start her discussions on paganism, with groups like schoolchildren, by writing the question ‘do you think religion should be sexy?’ on the blackboard.  Naturally this would get the audience’s attention and deliver a winning blow to any vicar she was competing against. All very good, but when she arrived on the last night for the main ritual she was dressed in robes clearly chosen for their glamour and sex appeal. She walked past, swirling her skirts/robes in a very powerful gesture.  My Druid friend, a straight man, was obviously effected and later said for him this display meant ‘the Priestess had arrived’. So, a good thing, I guess … but I still wonder if a mature Dion Fortunethe Priestess of the 20th century, had ambled by, if the same affect would occur. And on that note, take a look at two other Priestesses whose power could roast chestnuts…

DAN and CCT – Priestesses and more

It seems in some way that where Neo-Paganism has gone, the Church may be following. How else do we explain this report on the latest clerical fashions for the Church of England, allowing Vicars to personalise at will? :). It all seems like a bit of window dressing to me, just like making the pulpits ready to dock the Vicar’s iPad. Give me an old fashioned cassock and King James Bible any day 🙂 Thanks for listening…

The Church of England – we’ll try anything!



  1. alexsumner · May 15, 2012

    Perhaps your straightfriend meant the Priestess _of Aphrodite_ had arrived, i.e. he was making a classical allusion. 😉

  2. Mike Howard · May 15, 2012

    Your interesting comments open up many areas of thought and discussion. The ‘sexualisation’ of divine images is something that has always interested me and to a certain degree also concerned me. Pagan magazine seem to be full of nubile young goddesses and hunky gods – and basically I don’t have a problem with that, except that images of older aspects of dieties and perhaps less attractive ones seem to be airbrushed out. Also the percentage of females to males is very high. It would be good to have a balance both in terms of gender and image.

    On a wider point, in my experience, occultists, magicians, witches and pagans seem to include a high (perhaps statistically high) proportion of artistic and creative people such as writers, artists, graphic designers, musicians, dancers poets etc. This may well be true of all spiritual belief systems of course and they have all inspired artists throughout the ages. Even Islam with its taboo and ban on human images and representing Allah and the Prophet has produced some exquisite artwork and decorations for mosques etc.
    It would appear that most expressions of magical ,religious and spiritual belief (except the most repressive, authoratarian and puritan) get the creative juices of their devotees going and that one is one way, an important one of communicating or communing with the Divine is through the arts, and that would include film, music and dance.

  3. Arcad · May 15, 2012

    This is a great post.

    About imagery and images, I think that when we create or even use a specific image, we at the same time limit our view to that image. Take the cross as THE image representing Christ/Christianity. Most people would see the instrument of torture only. The suffering god at best. Less people see how the cross symbolises so much more beyond that obvious surface of the picture.

    Having a sexy god may be nice but such an image distracts. It may well depend on the purpose and content of the ritual one is performing, though the image of an attractive god or goddess, your modern Isis/Osiris couple may be helpful. It may then depend on the representation we are focussing on. I personally like ancient pictures, icons or sculptures since they are plain pictures of the person, god, archangel or whatever you look at. They represent exactly what they should and any specific aspect I need I have to create with my own imagination. Of course while banishing I bet we all see the archangels grouping around us in a quite different way.

    When it comes to clothing, well I am a friend of using what is at hand. I do not have a proper robe but use some simple stuff which I only use for ritual, no chichi. At the end – that is my belief – the robe is only to assist us with the role we are playing while performing a ritual, separates the magician from the everyday person. Thus, does it really matter what we use? But also here it is that too much may be distracting.


  4. jakekarlins · May 15, 2012

    Thanks for this post! One thing I’d like to add- it’s not just that sexualized or commercialized images are tricky, it’s that traditional ones are often well designed. (And newer ones aren’t a lot of times.) Symbolism is pretty complex, and there are reasons behind that complexity and the order of the way images were worked out. A student of Trungpa Rinpoche talked about how there’s a nine square grid behind one style of Tibetan iconography that structures the image and is related to the inner structure of the eye. I don’t think a lot of New Age stuff has that intelligence behind it. Also, if you look at thankgas (not that they’re the best spiritual art but just the style I love and am most familiar with, I’m sure Christian and other traditions have their own amazing systems of art as meditation)-

    phew- if you look at some thangkas the forms are not idealized, they seem to be purposefully weird, off, even. I have a big poster of Amitabha in my room, and his head is shaped like a lotus. In a picture of Vajrayogini, the clouds of smoke around her mirror the flames, and her knife (same shape). This mirroring effect does something to the eye, the mind, and suggests all sorts of contemplations/ideas. (The smoke IS the flaying knife or whatever it’s called, the smoke IS the flames.) So the nonduality is enhanced through the picture. The “intoxication of conceptual mind” happens consciously or unconsciously through the picture. Some brilliant folks designed and executed these images to benefit us. The sexy newer images may be well intentioned sometimes, and the sexiness could be very powerful or helpful, but it doesn’t seem like the artists “get it” at least not yet.

  5. Frater Carfax · May 16, 2012

    Of course this isn’t strictly a new phenomenon, it’s just that it is not done with a true sense of style these days….I think you’ll like this…

  6. Pallas Renatus · May 17, 2012

    Perhaps of interest also is the reverse, that adopting a strict uniform can aid one in creating or contacting an egregore, and by extension, the divinity it was designed to express. DAN’s “Temple of ______” workshops are famous for this.

  7. Peregrin · May 17, 2012

    @Alex – thanks for this, makes sense now 🙂

    @Fr Arcad, thanks for your comments. Yes, great point about the Cross.:)

    @Mike – great points as always, especially re the creative expression with magical and pagan communities. And yes, there some wonderful no-no examples of both Jewish and Islamic representational art 🙂

    @Jake – thanks. I did not want to get into this aspect too much, but you are dead right. My Tibetan vajrayana teacher can talk for hours on the angles of the deities heads and arms and their inner meaning and expression in inner work. A lot there 🙂

    @Frater Carfax – yes, you were right, I did enjoy this. How amazing. Most of these women would have been good Christians… very funny 🙂

    THANKS everyone 🙂

  8. Pingback: Images in Magic : Inner and Outer « WiccanWeb
  9. Cecilia · February 24, 2014

    I was looking for anywhere to say something about D. A-N, as she thinks she’s pretty hot and that’s not my experience. She has forgotten what it means to be human now, as she is so guru-ised. Perhaps it’s because her inner advisor has never been human, by her own admission. This is a shame. She acts to protect her friends out of court instead of applying normal decency and process to anyone who dislikes her (not nice) supervisors in SOL. Just boot out the unhappy student without a discussion, that’s her way. That isn’t service to a Higher Power but brutal medievalism. Fortunately God, and the techniques of spiritual development don’t belong exclusively to her – as she clearly believes they do.

  10. Peregrin · February 24, 2014

    Hi Cecilia, thanks for the comment. I am not sure any current SOL folk read my blog comments, so you may wish to look elsewhere for another forum they may read?

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